Who knew that choosing the U.S. Postal Service’s next flagship mail delivery truck could become such a political football?
Any large government contract — this one is potentially worth more than $6 billion for an order that could reach 180,000 trucks — will be surrounded by lobbying. But given the current political environment, a decision that should be based on what truck best transports mail to the doorstep is fraught with undercurrents. Perhaps this is why the postal service has held strict radio silence on the topic except to confirm it is testing five prototype vehicles in a variety of climates and regions. It is expected to make its decision later this year.
Two bidders are overseas companies. Both would assemble the vehicles in the U.S., but it’s hard to see how the Trump administration’s “America First” outlook would allow this important government contract to be captured by businesses such as India-based Mahindra or the Turkish-owned Karsan.
The blowback would be more about the optics of the deal rather than the actual contract. Mail trucks are ubiquitous, perhaps the most obvious representation of the federal government in our daily lives. Could Trump tolerate a foreign automaker’s logo on the front for the next two decades?
Then there is the issue of technology. The powertrains of the vehicles vary. Each makes a statement about the use of fossil fuel and whether the massive fleet of federal vehicles should be designed to reduce carbon emissions to fight climate change.
The estimated fuel economy of the current truck is listed at 17 mpg by the Environmental Protection Agency. But letter carriers interviewed by Trucks.com said they rarely get to double-digit mileage given the constant stop-and-go traffic of their delivery routes.
The Karsan truck, which would be built with its U.S. partner Morgan Olson of Sturgis, Mich., is a plug-in hybrid mail truck. Trucks.com photos of the team’s prototype show ports on either side of the truck. The one on the right side is for electricity. The other, above the left rear wheel, is a conventional gasoline port.VT Hackney and Workhorse Group. VT Hackney makes specialized truck bodies and is based in Washington, N.C. Electric work truck maker Workhorse is headquartered in Loveland, Ohio. It has a factory in Indiana, home state of Vice President Mike Pence. It’s a safe bet that this team has already met with Pence, pitching the economic benefits of winning at least a piece of the business.
The Mahindra will offer gasoline or a mild-hybrid powertrain option, according to a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration filing.
The remaining two entries have conventional powertrains.
Oshkosh Corp., based in Oshkosh, Wis., is working with Ford Motor Co. to modify a gasoline Ford Transit Cargo van for the postal service. South Bend, Ind., manufacturer AM General submitted an internal-combustion engine truck with start-stop technology for improved fuel efficiency.
Would the Trump administration, which has an EPA that plans to ease fuel economy and emissions regulations for passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks, allow the postal service to make a statement about the environment by purchasing vehicles with a complete or partial electric drive system?
Although the postal service operates as an independent agency, Trump has views and he’s not afraid to express them. Last month he pressed U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon.com. It was widely seen as a political move against Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post. The Post has criticized many of Trump’s policy initiatives and aggressively covered the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
A coalition of environmental groups is pushing for less polluting, hybrid and electric mail trucks. They wrote Brennan last year to say that switching to electric delivery trucks from gasoline-powered vehicles would save the postal service in fuel costs and reduce emissions. They said the move would also diminish reliance on foreign oil by substituting domestic electricity and reduce maintenance costs.
If the VT Hackney/Workhorse truck is chosen, the postal service would soon have the largest electric vehicle fleet in the world. In its request for proposals, the postal service specifically asked for “hybrid and new technologies, including alternative fuel capabilities.” But that was back in the Obama administration.
If the postal service is able to make a decision this year, look for the contract to be split given the size of the order and the players involved. The largest chunk of business will likely go to AM General.
It is the safe choice. AM General enjoys an established name in the commercial vehicle sector. Its truck is similar to the Grumman LLV, the current mail truck. That makes it familiar to both carriers and the public. Its compact size works in tight urban corridors. And it’s just a gasoline truck without any new powertrain technology that would require post offices and distribution centers to install charging stations. Others have the same opinion. Trucks.com asked readers to rate the five trucks. The AM General was the top choice, collecting more than 13,000 votes or 36 percent.
Don’t write off the VT Hackney/Workhorse option for a portion of the orders. It would allow the postal service to dip its toes in advanced powertrain technology. It could use the trucks in urban centers where residents want to reduce noise and pollution. Promising to build in Pence’s Indiana also is a plus.
But don’t be surprised if this all gets pushed well into next year as the postal service agonizes over both the technical and political ramifications of its decision.
Of course, the most important constituency is the letter carriers who will drive the vehicles daily. They rightfully point out that the current truck isn’t up to the task. The cabin gets too hot in the summer and freezes in the winter. The truck was designed for first class mail — something emails and texts have made nearly obsolete. The builders never anticipated an e-commerce boom that has transformed letter carriers into package couriers.
The postal service says it is consulting constantly with letter carriers during this test and validation phase. Let’s hope the final contract is awarded on what’s best for the driver and delivery efficiency rather than political considerations.