The U.S. Postal Service is about to decide what vehicle will become the nation’s next mail truck. Will it be the one that letter carriers want?
As the Postal Service puts the five prototype models it is considering through extensive testing this year, letter carriers shared with Trucks.com the demands they face every day and evaluated the vehicles under consideration.
The changing dynamic of the job requires a vehicle with a far more modern design than the aging Grumman Long Life Vehicle that has served as the standard delivery truck since 1987, current and retired carriers told Trucks.com.
Delivery today is all about packages from Amazon.com and other e-commerce retailers. First class mail — letters and bills — are a shrinking segment of the business, replaced by email and online payments. That requires changes to the design of the trucks, especially the interior space.
The current truck has poor insulation, leaking vents and a small cargo area that is not tall enough to stand inside, said Kathy Denman, a letter carrier from Connersville, Ind.
“The main thing for me is having heat, defrost and good visibility,” Denman said. “And you have to be able to walk around in there.”
The five entries hoping to win the competition include:
- A battery-electric truck with a range extender from a team composed of VT Hackney and Workhorse Group.
- A mild hybrid option from the U.S. division of Indian manufacturer Mahindra.
- A truck with engine start-stop technology from AM General.
- A plug-in hybrid from a team made up of Karsan Otomotive, a Turkish truck maker, and Morgan Olson, a manufacturer of walk-in vans
- A modified Ford Transit van from Oshkosh Corp.
It’s a big contract, potentially worth more than $6 billion for an order that could reach 180,000 trucks. The Postal Service is expected to make its decision later this year.
The USPS launched testing last fall. But the service has been silent on what it has learned and declined a request to brief Trucks.com on the competition.
But letter carriers have opinions about the vehicles under consideration and how a new truck should be configured. Much of what they have learned comes from a series of photographs of the prototypes captured by Trucks.com.
Letter carriers said they want the new truck to offer air conditioning, improved visibility, a hybrid or electric powertrain option and built-in shelves to organize parcels in the rear storage area.
A new mail truck is essential, Denman said.
The current vehicle is particularly bad in difficult weather conditions, she said.
For example, Denman sealed a gap in the upper corner of her truck using foam rubber tubes to prevent rainwater and snow from collecting inside overnight. Other carriers rig handmade ducts to cool off the cab in the summer, when temperatures in the truck can reach 125 degrees.
Some carriers said they were pleased with the finalists.
“The main thing I’m seeing in these vehicles is the bigger cab,” said Patrick Baker, a carrier of 18 years in Jefferson City, Mo. “They’ve addressed the idea that parcels are the way of the future for the Postal Service.”
Baker said that he delivered an average of 18 packages per day in 2011. Thanks to a 2013 deal in which the USPS agreed to deliver Amazon.com orders, he now handles 70 packages on a typical day.
The current “vehicles weren’t designed for that,” he said. “Since there’s no real shelves, everything moves.”
The Postal Service has taken measures to address such concerns, according to documents created for potential contract bidders. There are a set of specific requirements for the new mail trucks in the Postal Service’s Request for Proposal, issued when it launched the competition in 2015.
For instance, the trucks must have a “universal mounting system” to attach shelves or a rolling cart.
Sliding doors are also required on both sides of the truck so that carriers do not have to access the cargo space from the rear while exposed to in traffic. Carriers must be able to move from the cabin to the cargo space without exiting the vehicle.
While some carriers expressed the need for more space, that can be a slippery slope, said Travis Chiple, a carrier in Oklahoma City.
“We have to maneuver around parked vehicles, trash cans and we make a lot of three-point turns in cul-de-sacs,” Chiple said. “So bigger isn't the key.”
He called the prototypes “bulky” and said the current vehicle is the ideal size for a mail truck.
The Postal Service documents require bidders to produce two versions of their prototype. One is a “Small Vehicle” with 121 square feet of total mail volume. The other is a “Standard Vehicle” with a capacity of 155 square feet.
Each supplier was required to deliver six working vehicles to the USPS. The mail trucks are required to have two-wheel drive with an option for four-wheel drive.
The trucks are currently undergoing a 26-week test period with letter carriers in real-world environments. Each entry will also be subjected to a “24,000 Mile Durability Test” at a dedicated facility with a variety of pavement types, including potholes and cobblestone roads. They are also undergoing tests in cities where letter carriers contend with heavy snow, rain and heat.
The USPS has asked for powertrains designed with an expected life of at least 12 years. The trucks themselves are expected to last at least 20 years.
Both active and retired carriers voiced their support for a fuel-efficient choice. Depending on the route, carriers described the current truck reaching up to 18 mpg in a typical day or dropping as low as 5-6 mpg.
The trucks must have a minimum 1,500-pound payload capacity, optional air conditioning and a “weather-tight body.”
They won’t win any races. The USPS stipulates the new truck must accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 35 seconds. However, the Postal Service will test each entry with “figure eight high lateral movements” to ensure handling and maneuverability.
Without knowing exact dimensions and other details of the vehicles, carriers said they will reserve judgement until more information is revealed.
But based on what is presently known, Denman said the Oshkosh entry suits her best because of its ground clearance and cargo space. It also has an array of cameras that appear to improve outward visibility, said John Ortmann, a retired carrier in St. Louis, Mo.
“We had more accidents because of the sight problems than anything else,” Ortmann said.
Knial Williams, a retired station manager in Bentonville, Ark., liked the Oshkosh for its space as well. He also singled out the Workhorse/Hackney entry for its electric capability.
Baker agreed. He made the Workhorse/Hackney his top choice, largely for its regenerative braking that could recharge the battery and increase all-electric range along its route. The Postal Service advised bidders to prepare vehicles to handle a minimum 600 stops per day.
In the end, carriers will adapt to whichever mail truck is chosen by the Postal Service, said Bill Smith, a retired carrier in Terre Haute, Ind.
But he cautioned that one size does not fit all.
“What works for one carrier in Washington, D.C., or New York City will not necessarily work in Covington, Ind.,” Smith said.