When the long-awaited replacement for the Grumman LLV (the current USPS mail trucks) was announced, people were excited that the vehicle would be available as an EV. I argued that it makes sense to get at least some gasoline-powered vehicles because the agency’s current vehicles are in very bad shape, in some cases endangering the lives of postal workers and the public alike with catastrophic fires.
What we didn’t know at the time was that the agency planned on making 90% of the Oshkosh NGDV vehicles gas-powered. The disappointment led to questions from Congress, demanding to know why they were buying another round of gas-powered vehicles at a time when the federal government is pushing to electrify the whole federal fleet. Sure, USPS is technically not part of the government, and is funded by postage fees, but they’re still congressionally-chartered and are at least quasi-governmental.
Recently, Automotive News told us about a bill that would give USPS the necessary funds to go ahead and buy the EV version of the new vehicle. The problem the USPS faced was upfront costs. While EVs have a lower cost of operation than a comparable gas-powered vehicle, batteries are still expensive. To buy a comparable gas-powered vehicle is still cheaper up front than EVs. The long-term budget would be better for USPS after factoring in maintenance and fuel costs, but they can’t afford to buy that many EVs with their current budget.
When asked by lawmakers last month what it would take to buy 90% or more EVs, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told lawmakers: “We don’t have the 3 or 4 extra billion in our plan right now that it would take to do it.”
The bill would give the USPS $6 billion, which is more than DeJoy said it would take. The funding bill would require that the service make at least 75% of the vehicles EVs. This gives the service more flexibility and more than was needed, so the job should be easy to accomplish.
However, the bill also requires 50% of the USPS medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to be electric between now and 2029, and all USPS ground vehicles (regardless of size) to be electric after 2040. The extra billions of funding could get eaten up quickly, as the USPS runs many semi trucks and medium-duty trucks for the transportation of mail. Given that even a pre-order of a Tesla Semi is $150,000 to $180,000, it doesn’t take long to spend big bucks upgrading 50% of the fleet.
To replace the trucks alone would cost about $350 million (that’s 1800 semi trucks times the price of a longer-range Tesla Semi plus some admin costs), but there’s also the costs of adding charging infrastructure to USPS properties and making sure that there is adequate truck charging along common USPS routes. The cost of doing all of that and replacing the organization’s trailers can easily add up to a lot.
And that doesn’t include any of the medium-duty trucks.
Is This A Good Idea?
I’m not personally a big fan of spending big bucks on the U.S. Postal Service. People should cover the cost of moving their own mail and packages, and that should pay for the services USPS provides. Where I live, their service has been less than stellar, with many lost pieces of mail, including checks from people I depend on many months to pay the bills. In some ways, we might be better off to let FedEx, UPS, and DHL take care of mail. The junk mailers wouldn’t have an affordable way to deliver kindling to my house, but that’s not a big loss.
On the other hand, people expect the USPS to continue operating, and they are a quasi-governmental agency. When things get bad for USPS, it’s ultimately going to cost taxpayers to bail them out. Letting USPS make the short-term decision to buy mostly gas vehicles will cost the agency big money in future years, and is likely to lead to taxpayers shelling out a lot more than $6 billion for the maintenance of obsolete last-century vehicle powerplants.
To deny the funding needed to modernize the fleet would be short-term wise but long-term foolish. And that’s only looking at the money.
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Environmental Impacts and Political Will
More importantly, we have a fairly cheap opportunity to keep hundreds of thousands of high-utilization gas-powered vehicles from roaming around on city and suburban streets. The constant stop-go driving that postal trucks engage in, the idling, and the low-speed driving make for the worst possible gas mileage and emissions a gas engine could possibly give. The impact for these vehicles being gas-powered is worse than most.
When you multiply this by 165,000 vehicles, that’s not a negligible environmental impact. I don’t know how to calculate the number exactly, but the emissions from 90% gasoline vehicles will cost a number of lives over time from respiratory illnesses, birth defects, and cancer. That many vehicles will generate a lot of carbon dioxide that will cause problems for climate change.
The cost of this subsidy for USPS vehicles is low compared to things we’re already doing to clean up vehicle emissions. The federal EV tax credit alone was estimated by Strata to be $15–20 billion, and keep in mind that those EV subsidies started up under a Republican administration. If that price tag is acceptable for the replacement of private vehicles with EVs, it’s even less of a stretch to replace USPS vehicles with EVs.
Political positions have changed since 2009, though. During the 2000s, there were serious problems with the supply of foreign oil that drove gas prices sky high and threatened U.S. national security interests. That was enough for Republicans to enthusiastically support replacing vehicles that funded America’s enemies with vehicles that ran on American fuel. Since then, oil production has shifted to being a lot less dependent on foreign oil, so nationalists in the Republican party have shifted positions to support the domestic fossil fuel industry.
What we really need is to get people talking about the benefits the U.S. accrues by switching to EVs. More energy security, less government spending on USPS in the long run, and other benefits can appeal to Republicans and independents without even needing to mention the environment.
Featured image by the United States Postal Service