The U.S. Postal Service has launched full-scale testing of a series of prototype delivery vans from which it plans to select its next mail truck.
The order will be huge for the companies involved.
The USPS will choose models from the prototypes to replace up to 180,000 mail trucks over the course of seven years, an estimated $6.3 billion of business. The post office's current fleet is aging. Of the 215,000 mail trucks in operation, 140,000 are at least two decades old.
“Real-world” testing of the prototypes began last month in Flint, Mich., Leesburg, Va., and Tucson, Ariz., in early October. Other test locations include Tempe, Ariz., Utica, Mich., and Manassas, Va., according to the USPS.
Five contenders are participating in the competition, which the USPS has named the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle, or NGDV, program. They include two team entries: VT Hackney/Workhorse Group and Karsan/Morgan Olson. The three additional companies are AM General, Oshkosh and Mahindra.
The postal service said the winner of the vehicle contract will be announced in early 2018.
Given the Trump administration's arguably protectionist rhetoric and preference for U.S. manufacturers, it's likely the agency might opt for a full American design, said Jeffrey Osborne, a Cowen & Co. automotive analyst.
That would favor three of the contenders, AM General, Oshkosh and the Hackney entry, which is an electric vehicle that shares many components with the Workhorse W-15 electric pickup truck.
If the USPS selects an electric vehicle, it will become the largest electric vehicle fleet in the world, Osborne said. “It would be a pretty pronounced step, in terms of showing that electric vehicles are ready to hit prime time.”
Whatever design the postal service selects, it will open new doors in the transportation industry, especially in the last-mile delivery, he said.
The post office plans to rotate the entries through each location every three weeks, Kim Frum, a USPS spokeswoman told Trucks.com.
Already, prototypes from AM General, Hackney and Mahindra have been spotted delivering mail in the testing locations.
The test locations were chosen to determine how each test vehicle performs in different environments, including weather and landscape as well as urban and rural conditions, Frum said.
“This testing will allow the postal service the opportunity to make an informed and educated decision of the future of our fleet based on carrier feedback and observations,” she said.
The agency wants the new vehicles to better accommodate an increasingly diverse mail mix, a result of a tidal wave of e-commerce deliveries.
USPS consulted with many stakeholders to develop the proposal for the vehicle prototypes, Frum said.
“Our suggestions and input were to make the vehicle safer, more ergonomic and more efficient,” said Brian Renfroe, executive vice president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, which has 283,000 members.
For example, the new delivery vehicle must have a larger capacity than the Grumman Long Life Vehicle that’s been in use since 1987 to handle the increase in e-commerce packages, Renfroe said. Parcel volume has increased at a double-digit rate annually since 2015, according to the association's data.
The USPS also wants to enhance safety, improve service, reduce emissions and produce operational savings, Frum said.
Specifically, the postal service has asked for trucks with a service life of 18 to 20 years, right-hand steering with two-wheel drive. It also wants a four-wheel drive option. It’s looking for a van-style body with integral cargo and cab compartment constructed of aluminum alloy or composite materials; and sliding side doors. It wants a minimum 1,500-pound payload capacity and optional air conditioning.
Additionally, new designs must have 330 cubic feet to 400 cubic feet of cargo space and headroom that is a minimum of 76 inches tall, enough standing room for a 6-foot-5 letter carrier. The vehicles must have a driver’s-side airbag.
The USPS declined to comment on details about the prototypes. However, the agency has said it is looking for updated safety features, including back-up cameras, warning systems, ergonomic seats and doors and antiskid surfaces.
It also said half the prototypes will use hybrid technologies, including alternative-fuel capabilities.
1. AM General
AM General is based in South Bend, Ind., and manufactured the civilian Hummer H1, as well as the current military Humvee. It also built the Dispatcher Jeep — the first civilian model of the military Jeep. The DJ was used by the USPS as a delivery vehicle into the early-'90s.
The company said its mail truck prototype — designed and developed in Livonia, Mich., combines “highly reliable, low-maintenance, fuel-saving powertrain options and advanced safety systems into a durable, low operating-cost vehicle.”
A recent prototype of the AM General mail truck was spotted using an internal combustion engine with start-stop technology for improved fuel efficiency.
The truck is equipped with digital instrument gauges and a large central display screen. It also has LED headlights and exterior cameras at the front and rear. LED strips inside the cargo space increase visibility.
2. Karsan/Morgan Olson
Karsan Otomotive, which is based in Istanbul, Turkey, has designed and built more than 277,000 gas and electric cars as well as specialty automobiles in Europe. In October, the company teamed with Morgan Olson, a Sturgis, Mich.-based manufacturer of walk-in vans that has a longstanding relationship with USPS. In 1986, USPS ordered more than 140,000 delivery bodies for its Long Life Vehicle. In 2015, USPS ordered 6,533 left-hand-drive walk-in delivery vehicles from the truck maker as part of a contract that expires this month. Morgan Olson also makes walk-in delivery vans for UPS.
For the next-generation mail truck, Karsan will provide the hybrid technology and Morgan Olson will manufacture the body.
The U.S. division of the Indian manufacturer Mahindra, known for building right-hand drive commercial vehicles, said that its design proposal emphasizes “safety, ergonomics and fuel economy all within a ground-up approach to vehicle integration.”
Rich Ansell, vice president of marketing for Mahindra North American Technical Center, confirmed testing is underway. The Mahindra prototype was recently spotted in Flint, Mich. The truck uses a 2.5-liter engine from General Motors and may be available with a mild hybrid powertrain option.
Mahindra’s vehicle designs can typically handle rugged conditions. It produces a number of commercial trucks for the Indian market, as well as the Jeeto van and the Bolero Pik-Up. Mahindra also makes electric cargo vans such as the Supro.
Oshkosk Corp. is headquartered in Oshkosh, Wis., and manufactures vehicles such as aircraft rescue and fire trucks, snow blowers, plow trucks and tactical vehicles. It also makes related equipment. Oshkosh has a long history of contracts with the federal government. Since 2009, its defense arm has delivered more than 35,700 medium tactical trucks and trailers to the U.S. Army, which just extended its contract through 2019 and awarded the company an additional order worth $260.1 million.
5. VT Hackney/Workhorse
In this joint venture, Loveland, Ohio-based Workhorse built the chassis and VT Hackney made the body. The Workhorse chassis is already being used by FedEx Ground, USPS and DHL. Workhorse has a relationship with fleet management company Ryder System Inc., which placed an order for 2,500 of its W-15 electric pickup trucks. UPS also ordered more than 300 of its Range-Extended E-Gen Model step trucks.
The company claims its E-Gen series offers a 400 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, requires 60 percent less maintenance and saves more than $140,000 over a 20-year life. VT Hackney, is a manufacturer of specialized truck bodies and is based in Washington, N.C.
The Workhorse-VT Hackney all-electric prototype was seen delivering mail in Leesburg, Va. It has a small BMW gasoline engine that acts as a generator to extend the range of the truck. It has an attention-grabbing profile featuring a low-slung aerodynamic hood, oversized windows and an upright stance for the cargo box.
Postmaster General Megan Brennan told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing on Feb. 7 that the agency may use a “bridge strategy” as it has in the past, which means incrementally replacing up to 12,000 vehicles at a time.
As the agency looks for its next truck, it's already thinking ahead. The USPS is also working with the University of Michigan on an autonomous mail delivery truck, which it hopes to introduce to select rural routes across the country by 2025.
In one possible scenario, a worker could sit behind the wheel sorting mail and doing other tasks as the truck automatically drives the route.
Editor’s note: Trucks.com Managing Editor Carly Schaffner contributed to this report.
An earlier edition of this story named REV Group as the partner of Karsan. In October, Karsan signed a memorandum of understanding naming Morgan Olson as it's partner. It also listed the date of an U.S. Postal Service truck order with Morgan Olson as 1966. It was 1986.