As CleanTechnica detailed in another article, the United States Postal Service (USPS) recently chose a vendor to replace the service’s aging and degraded fleet of vehicles. The vehicles come with a very nice set of new features compared to the Grumman LLV they’re replacing, but they’re going to be ordered in both gas-powered and electric versions.
At first glance, I was annoyed by this. Shouldn’t we be replacing the whole USPS fleet with electric vehicles? What about Biden’s pledge to buy federal EVs? Why are they taking a step back here?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are several really good reasons to do this, and my reasoning here fits in well with the way they ordered these vehicles. The plan is very likely to have a fully electric USPS fleet, but for practical reasons, they can’t really do that just yet.
The Grumman LLVs Are In Really Bad Shape
The postal vehicle we know today, the Grumman LLV, was literally designed to be a Long Life Vehicle, but that was originally meant to be 20 years. That was over 30 years ago for most of them, so the vehicles have definitely lived up to their name.
How many 1980s Chevrolet S-10 pickups do we see on the road today? The answer is not many, and Grumman used the same frame, motor, transmission, and a few other parts that were the same as an old S-10 or S-Blazer. The LLVs were built from 1987-1994, with no changes during production.
Don’t get me wrong — the S10’s “Iron Duke” 4-cylinder was actually a very stout powerplant, as was the THM 180 if you took care of it. Many of them are actually still on the road today not only in the remaining LLVs, but also in a variety of other GM 4-cylinder cars of the era. The slower versions of the Pontiac Fiero had the same engine.
Pushing those vehicles so far beyond their design life has taken a toll. The worn out and old LLVs are catching fire at alarming rates. In 2017 alone, dozens went up in flames. Since 2014, hundreds have been damaged or destroyed entirely in fires. Two engineering firms were hired to study the fires and figure out what to do about them, but they simply couldn’t pin it down to any one thing. The causes and conditions all varied so much, that the likely answer was simply that the vehicles are wearing out to the point where they’re not safe. The fact that fires are more common in the oldest LLVs says a lot.
The original plan was to replace the vehicles starting in 2017 (when the oldest ones turned 30), but budget issues that were at least partially caused by Congress prevented anything from happening until now, and even then, the vehicles aren’t going to be delivered for years. USPS projects the first of the new trucks will be seen on routes in 2023.
The US EV Infrastructure Isn’t Ready For Long Routes
The bigger problem is that the EV charging infrastructure in the US just isn’t ready for prime time. In theory, the new EV models will charge at night and then run when the postal carriers come to work in the early morning, so no Level 3 charging will be needed for their routes. In practice, that’s only going to be practical in cities and most of the suburbs.
In rural zones, the vehicles will run into more snags. Hot and cold weather will kill range, especially the cold. Dirt and gravel roads will also sap range. If they get in over their heads on these longer, rougher routes, the vehicles will need to charge at lunch or be swapped out for a second vehicle. On the longest routes, putting a big enough battery in the vehicle might still be cost prohibitive.
Government Never Builds Anything Fast
When the vehicles are slated to go into use and replace the LLVs, the Postal Service is going to need to put in a lot of Level 2 chargers. Each fleet facility will need dozens of charging stations. To do each of them, they’ll need to select a vendor, select a contractor, develop plans, pull permits, get the job actually done, and then get approval to power them.
A person doing this at home can get it done fairly fast. You get quotes from 2-5 electricians, figure out who has the lowest price, and get it done. Or, if you really know what you’re doing, you set it up yourself. Government agencies like the USPS have all sorts of bidding and procurement policies they’ll have to slow-crawl through before anyone even turns a shovel of dirt. They’re like the Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Expect the first vehicles to not have a charging station ready for them in the lot, and probably a good number of them after the first ones.
Putting This All Together
The USPS needs a good number of these vehicles to replace fire-prone LLVs three years ago. Given that they can’t be delivered into the past, the need to field them immediately (especially on longer routes) will take priority over what they’re fueled by. USPS didn’t tell media whether anyone was injured in the fires, but assuming nobody was, that can’t go on forever. The oldest LLVs will need to be replaced as fast as possible, no matter what. Lives are literally at stake here.
Once the oldest ones are replaced, they can afford to start getting picky about getting more EVs into service. As charging stations (both at the USPS lot and elsewhere) improve, they’ll be able to field more and more of the electric version of the vehicle until all new purchases are electric.
The NGDV will also be delivered with modular parts, so as the situation changes, they’ll be able to start retrofitting the first gas vehicles purchased to electric. That’s built into the contract, and is definitely happening.
I hope that the USPS only orders the gas version when they absolutely need one due to charging unavailability or because the electric version can’t take on a route. Hopefully they don’t just order a bunch of them gas-powered due to laziness or bureaucratic inertia. If they can do that, the environmental impact will be minimized while doing what it takes to keep postal workers and people living along the routes safe.
Featured image: The new USPS NGDV, image by US Postal Service