Congress Positioned to Push for New Electric Mail Trucks

March 08, 2021 by Trucks.com, @trucksdotcom

Editor’s note: This column first appeared as a post by the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy. It is written by Dorothy Robyn, a Senior Fellow at the institute. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

Clean energy advocates reacted angrily last week when the U.S. Postal Service, or USPS, failed to move aggressively toward electric vehicles (EVs) in awarding the long-awaited contract for its Next Generation Delivery Vehicle, or NGDV. But some objects may be closer than they appear. The USPS is not anti-EV, just broke. If Congress covers the higher upfront cost of EVs, the USPS will be able to electrify its fleet at a pace that would make the Pony Express proud.

The USPS’s award of the NGDV contract, which calls for the production over 10 years of 50,000 to 165,000 vehicles with “either fuel-efficient internal combustion engines or battery-electric powertrains,” was the culmination of a lengthy procurement process to replace the boxy, right-hand-drive mail trucks familiar to Americans. The USPS selected Oshkosh Defense, a military contractor whose prototype delivery truck reportedly featured a gasoline engine, over two competitors whose models incorporated electric powertrains.

While the award raised concerns in the clean energy community, the implementation details that the USPS subsequently revealed were a body blow. A day after the NGDV announcement—and just weeks after President Biden called for electrifying the entire federal vehicle fleet—Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told a congressional hearing that the USPS’s current plan called for only 10 percent of the trucks purchased from Oshkosh to be electric. When asked, “Why 10 percent, why not 90 percent?,” DeJoy responded, “because we don’t have the 3 or 4 extra billion dollars…that it would take to do it.”

DeJoy’s response bore out the concern I raised in a Feb. 10 commentary, where I cautioned that “even though a postal EV would cost far less to operate and maintain, and provide substantial societal benefits from reduced carbon emissions and accelerated industry transformation, the gas guzzler’s lower upfront price may be hard for the USPS to resist.” EV advocates panned the USPS action, and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who has led the fight to electrify the postal fleet, vowed to block the Oshkosh contract.

However, DeJoy’s follow-on comments at the hearing, which received less coverage, provided grounds for hope. First, DeJoy said he would be happy to work with the Administration and Congress “if they want to help us” with the EV commitment. His offer was a seeming nod to the House of Representatives’ 2020 infrastructure bill, which cleverly authorized $6 billion for the NGDV procurement conditional on the USPS acquiring 75 percent EVs. The Senate failed to take up the bill.

Second, DeJoy underscored that the USPS had spent $500 million to allow the vehicles to be converted from a conventional to an electric powertrain. Although details are sketchy, under the contract’s initial $482 million investment, Oshkosh will finalize the design of a vehicle platform—and the associated tooling and production facilities—that can accommodate an electric as well as a conventional powertrain, allowing the USPS to tailor individual orders.

Dorothy Robyn

In short, the USPS, which lost $9 billion last year, is negotiating, not thumbing its nose at President Biden. Given the House’s action last year, the USPS is doing exactly what one would expect: starting with a small, 10 percent, commitment to EVs and inviting Congress and the Biden Administration to give it the money to increase the commitment.

It is Congress’s and the Administration’s move now. Threatening to cancel the contract is counter-productive: the procurement process has taken five years, the USPS presumably followed the rules (if not, the losing bidders can challenge the result), and it desperately needs new vehicles to replace the 30-year old legacy fleet.

Instead, Congress should give the USPS the upfront capital it needs to have Oshkosh produce EVs from the get-go. Such a one-time subsidy—conditioned on actual EV purchases—is justified given the huge environmental and innovation externalities from electrification of the giant postal fleet. Alternatively, the Administration could impose a similar condition on the $10 billion provided to the USPS in the December 2020 omnibus appropriations and stimulus bill—USPS access to which remains subject to terms set by the Treasury Department.

Congress should move quickly. It’s too late to avoid the compromises in vehicle design that may be needed to accommodate multiple powertrains. It’s not too late to avoid the cost of maintaining two sets of fueling facilities, parts storage, mechanics, etc. The sooner Congress signals—with its wallet—that the future NGDV is electric, the better.

Longer term, Congress and the Administration need to reform federal procurement policy so that agencies award contracts based on life-cycle cost, not first cost. Clean energy technology typically costs more upfront and yields savings only over time, in the form of lower operating costs. Federal procurement can be a powerful tool for driving clean energy innovation—in federal buildings as well as the federal fleet. But this will happen only if federal purchasers recognize the true costs and benefits of their decisions.

Editor’s note: Dorothy Robyn is a Senior Fellow at the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy. She served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment from 2009-2012.

Trucks.com welcomes divergent thoughts and opinions on transport technology and trucking industry issues. Use the comments section to cite yours. Qualified opinion leaders are welcome to offer suggestions for opinion columns. Contact info@trucks.com.

Jerry Hirsch March 1, 2021
Electric truck manufacturer Workhorse Group said it is exploring ways to challenge losing a U.S. Postal Service contract to build the next-generation mail truck.

6 Responses

  1. Gerrit Stumpe

    Great initiative! Many thanks for the great article which highlights besides private commitment it also needs involvement and support by the public in order to make real change from fossil to alternative propulsion systems in the logistic chain.
    In Germany we currently test overhead catenary hybrid trucks (BEV follow in short) for long-haul on a short stretch on Germany’s most frequented motorway A5 near Frankfurt. Daily experience from one of the drivers:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHSofIc31rw

    Reply
  2. L Kimura

    Over the life of the mail vans the operating costs in terms of energy and maintenance of an electric mail van will be significantly lower than an ICE van, and that includes the cost of the charging infrastructure. So the USPS really can’t afford to not go electric.

    I find it hard to believe that it would cost $3-4 billion install a charging infrastructure. Most of the routes are in urban areas and are less than 40 miles covering hundreds of stops. With regenerative braking an electric van should be able to negotiate such a route by consuming less than 40 KWH of electricity. There is no reason that a typical electric mail van could not be recharged overnight with a common Level 2, 240 VAC charger. The huge cost assumed by the USPS appears to be based on the much more expensive Level 3 DC fast chargers currently being constructed along the nations major motorways.

    Finally does the USPS really believe it would be less costly to retrofit an electric powertrain to an ICE van than just purchasing an electric van to begin with? This is crazy, and shouldn’t the USPS add 10% of their estimated cost of the charging infrastructure to the Oshkosh bid. Also why should the USPS pay for redesigning the van for an electric retrofit when one that is fully tested and capable of meeting USPS requirements has already been offered by Workhorse?

    Reply
    • Dave

      I work at usps 30 plus years ,carrier city,I don’t give fig’s for ev trucks,and arguing will just cause more delay,we lose power here sometimes a week or more,snow,hills,heat,running truck for your heat at breaks and lunch everyday,maybe its p.c. today with new world order cancel culture ,sorry just tired of this craps my two cents.wish the fact you slayed the evil orange man was enough but its only beginning,God bless my dads america!

      Reply
    • Lew Flowers

      Being a former USPS fleet maintenance manager, I think the contract using IC power with 10 per cent electric makes sense.

      Reply

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