By Meldan Heaslip
The United States Postal Service (USPS) has just awarded the contract to replace up to 165,000 of their aging delivery fleet to a company that will produce mostly gas-fueled trucks¹. According to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, just 10% will be electric².
As one of the largest fleets worldwide, electrifying USPS trucks would significantly reduce the US government’s CO2 emissions, prevent premature deaths, advance US manufacturing, create well-paid jobs, reduce air and noise pollution in our neighborhoods, and provide our mail carriers with a healthier, happier ride.
Going electric would also help prevent USPS from going out of business.
Study after study demonstrates the total cost of ownership of electric vehicles is now significantly lower than vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE), and that this gap is growing3, 4, 5. There’s a reason beyond environmental impacts and good PR that operators of large fleets, including Amazon, UPS, and FedEx, are not only electrifying but investing venture capital in EV manufacturers6, 7.
A fleet locked into a gas-fueled future will be burdened by escalating fuel and maintenance costs, placing them at a distinct disadvantage to their EV competitors.
The new USPS trucks will stop-go, stop-go on our roads for the next 20+ years, during which time a large number of US states will have banned the sale of new ICE vehicles. The most aggressive current timeline would see Washington state lead the way, ceasing ICE registrations just 9 years from now8. As gasoline demand plummets, so will the scale of production, thereby increasing prices at the pump. The same will be true for maintenance costs as parts supply and service expertise transition rapidly to the EV market.
The new fleet will be produced over the next 10 years, during which time battery costs — the most expensive component of an EV — will fall by ~50%9. USPS could save significantly by having the electric trucks first enter service in urban areas where a smaller battery will suffice. A smaller battery would reduce cost, waste, and the vehicle’s weight, increasing efficiency. The youngest of the legacy gas trucks could be used to cover longer routes for now, to be replaced by trucks with larger batteries as prices continue to fall. The larger battery would not require any changes to the trucks’ platform or assembly, allowing USPS to maintain uniform parts and maintenance across the fleet.
Beyond saving money, questions related to range, charging, truck availability, and even the impact of weather, are important to consider.
- Range. The average daily USPS delivery route across the US is approximately 20 miles. There are some outliers. For example, a 186-mile delivery route in Phillipsburg, Kansas, is USPS’ longest10. In rural areas, the average delivery route is 45 miles11. Can an electric vehicle meet these demands? The EPA-estimated average range of electric cars and SUVs sold today in the US is approximately 240 miles, and electric pickup trucks entering production in 2021 have estimated ranges of 250–300 miles.
- Charging. There is not one USPS location without electricity. The same is true for the homes of drivers who might charge their delivery truck at home. It’s possible that some of the electric trucks assigned to >10-mile routes could be charged overnight via a standard 120V outlet, requiring minimal new wiring. Where faster charging is required, the installation of 240V outlets for Level 2 charging is not complex. Paid access to Level 2 chargers installed at USPS locations for overnight fleet charging could be provided during the day to the general public, providing revenue to USPS.
- Availability. Having started this process to replace the current fleet of delivery trucks several years ago, and struggling with ballooning costs to maintain the current fleet, USPS is eager to see the new trucks come into service. Oshkosh, the defense company currently selected to produce the new trucks, aims to retool and begin production in 20232. Workhorse, a US-based EV finalist for the USPS contract, is already in production, and there are a number of other US-based EV truck companies going into production this year that the USPS could work with, from startups to established manufacturers.
- Weather. Temperature extremes can reduce EV range by upwards of 20%, where the energy that would otherwise be used to spin the wheels is required to heat or cool the driver’s cabin and the battery itself12. Ensuring battery capacity exceeds range requirement safeguards against this concern. Technical solutions, such as energy-efficient heat pumps, can reduce the energy required to heat and are already available in many EVs on the market.
Oshkosh and USPS do claim the new ICE trucks could be converted to electric drive sometime down the road, though this would require an undisclosed expense, the funding of which is not included in the current contract. Setting aside the probability of this happening, producing a vehicle capable of future conversion would require engineering compromise, creating inefficiencies and greater expense. An argument to support such a decision exists only when the emerging technology does not, which is not the case here. Going this route would lead USPS to maintain a non-uniform fleet, adding further expense. If the intention is to eventually electrify the fleet, the least expensive path is to electrify now with a uniform electric drive platform.
This decision by USPS to go electric, or not, is consequential. Beyond critical environmental, social, and US-economic impacts, the most direct consequence to USPS will be to its own bottom line. Being locked into fueling and maintaining a fleet of ICE vehicles for the next 20–30 years will spell disaster for the already burdened institution. It cannot afford not to go electric.
Workhorse, one of three finalists for the USPS contract, is already in production and scaling up toward 3,500 units in 2021. Ford expects electric E-Transit truck production to begin in 2021. Lordstown electric truck expects production this year, and claims plant capacity of 600,000/year once fully operational several years from now. Rivian aims to have produced 10,000 electric delivery trucks by 2022 (all for Amazon), and then ramp from there.