Post Office Eyes Self-Driving Trucks for Future Mail Delivery

June 05, 2019 by Cyndia Zwahlen

Meet the mail truck of the future: a robot.

The U.S. Postal Service anticipates a time when its trucks will drive themselves from mailbox to mailbox while the mail carriers onboard sorts letters. And on the highway, unmanned big rigs would re-place truckers hauling mail on regional routes.

The Postal Service is already running test trials of autonomous highway trucks. And it’s working with industry players to see if it can use self-driving technology in its mail trucks.

How quickly this happens depends on technology and other issues. The agency needs to find the funds to test and deploy robotic trucks. And it has to keep up with self-driving options to stay competitive with rival delivery companies.

TESTING UNDERWAY

The Postal Service has already launched its first test of self-driving big rigs on highway mail routes. The testing began in May with autonomous truck-tech developer TuSimple. Trucks haul mail between Phoenix and Dallas.

The agency operates its own tractor trailers to move mail across the nation’s highways. It also spends billions of dollars annually hiring outside trucking companies to help. Dispensing with drivers is one strategy the Postal Service can employ to cut expenses.

The Postal Service also is looking at self-driving technology for its fleet of daily mail trucks.

The agency issued a request for information from industry players earlier this year. It sought infor-mation on how to add advanced autonomous driving technology to delivery vehicles. The technology could come in new vehicles or be retrofitted into existing ones. Letter carriers onboard the robotic delivery trucks would use the moving vehicles like mobile offices, sorting letters and packages.

TALKS WITH FORD

The Postal Service is already talking to the autonomous vehicle affiliate of Ford Motor Co.

“We did respond to the USPS RFI,” said Dan Pierce, spokesman for Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC.
“But that is all the detail we can provide at this time both for competitive reasons and out of respect for the USPS’s RFI process.”

The agency declined to provide the names of other companies involved in talks. But those companies had to file reports by April 5. The program’s next step is a Postal Service request for proposals to build prototypes and retrofit kits.

“Based on the level of interest from the industry, the Postal Service may identify candidates for future solicitation(s) aimed at demonstrating the capabilities of autonomous delivery vehicle technology with-in our focus areas of parcel and mail delivery,” the agency said in the RFI.

OLDER TRUCKS

The Postal Service has a fleet of about 141,000 daily mail trucks. Most are aluminum-body Grumman Long Life Vehicles, last built in 1994. The half-ton delivery trucks are at or past their expected life. They have mounting repair bills, according to agency records. The trucks also are prone to fires.

The Postal Service plans to replace its trucks. But that multiyear program is still in the prototype stage. Testing of the so-called next generation delivery vehicles, or NGDVs, wrapped in March. It began in fall 2017. Five manufacturers are waiting to hear who wins. The agency has said it expects to issue a production request by fall. Manufacturing would take place in batches over about seven years.

The prototypes included hybrid engines. But none appear to have self-driving technology, according to Trucks.com spy shots.

But the Postal Service will be able to ask that the vehicles be fitted with autonomous technology, according to the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

“Under the terms of its procurement contracts with manufacturers, the Postal Service will be able to mandate the addition of autonomous components at any time, with one year’s notice,” the report said.

MAHINDRA BOWS OUT

At least one of the five prototype makers decided not to respond to the Postal Service request for in-formation on adding autonomous technology to it delivery fleet.

Mahindra USPS prototype

Mahindra’s mail truck prototype (Photo: Brian Williams/Trucks.com)

Mahindra of India told Trucks.com it declined to take part in the agency’s latest industry request. The company makes electric vehicles and right-hand-drive cars. And it is working on self-driving tractors for agriculture.

“Mahindra decided to pass on the recent USPS RFI because it is for a class of vehicle not currently in our portfolio and we want to keep a singular focus on the USPS NGDV,” said Rich Ansell, a company spokesperson.

While the company doesn’t plan to work with the USPS on its current AV request, it sees “autonomous delivery vehicles as a market certainty and will plan accordingly,” Ansell said.

MICHIGAN TEST

Separately, the USPS confirmed a self-driving mail truck pilot took place at the University of Michigan. The university is a leader in autonomous vehicle technology. The pilot project was to design a proto-type for rural mail routes.

“We conducted an autonomous pilot at a test facility within the last two years,” said Kim Frum, a Post-al Service spokeswoman. She declined to comment on the results of the pilot.

She also did not say whether the pilot moved on to its next phases outlined in the Office of the Inspec-tor General report. In the second phase, the agency would find a company to make the self-driving mail trucks.

Previously, the agency said it planned to test autonomous mail trucks on 10 rural routes this year. And it planned to deploy self-driving mail trucks on 28,000 rural routes in three to five years.

The agency’s February RFI cast a wider net. And it did not mention rural routes as the focus for the semi-self-driving vehicles. But request likely is partly based on what the Postal Service learned during its pilot with the university.

ADOPTION HURDLES

The new technology faces hurdles. That’s true even if the agency can prove it is cost-effective and im-prove service and safety.

For one, the initial costs of adding the technology will be high, according to a report from the Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General. Also, insurance and liability issues are not yet clear.

The patchwork of state regulations will make it hard to roll out self-driving vehicles on a national scale, the report said. That includes unmanned trucks on highway routes and semi-self-driving mail trucks in neighborhoods. The connected infrastructure needed for advanced self-driving technologies is lacking, according to a recent report from management consultants McKinsey & Co. And the cost in jobs is likely to be high.

The USPS has about 500,000 employees. Many of those are postal carriers represented by unions. That may be why the agency is focusing on self-driving mail trucks that still needs letter carriers onboard to deliver the mail the final yard.

Cyndia Zwahlen May 13, 2019
The ongoing incidents of mail trucks erupting into flames while being driven through neighborhoods endangers the public and mail carriers, say consumer safety advocates.

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