The boo birds were on the attack earlier this spring, when the US Postal Service announced plans to convert most of its crumbling, fire-prone fleet of more than 230,000 old gasmobiles to new gasmobiles, with just a small fraction reserved for electric trucks. Adding insult to injury, the new fleet contract was awarded to the firm Oshkosh Defense, which critics have charged has less EV experience than other contenders. Well, the contract is still a target for critics, but suddenly the prospects for an all-electric Postal Service fleet are looking brighter.
What Happened To All The Electric Trucks?
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was only in office for a few months before accusations of financial conflicts and elections interference landed him in the doghouse last year. The heat turned up this spring when he announced plans to not electrify the Postal Service fleet.
On February 23, DeJoy outlined an initial installment of $482 million on a $6 billion contract for Oshkosh “to manufacture a new generation of U.S.-built postal delivery vehicles that will drive the most dramatic modernization of the USPS fleet in three decades.” The contract called for 50,000 to 165,000 vehicles to be delivered over a 10-year span beginning in 2023, which will be equipped “with either fuel-efficient internal combustion engines or battery electric powertrains and can be retrofitted to keep pace with advances in electric vehicle technologies.”
Despite the wiggle room for ICE technology, that actually seemed fairly promising in terms of ushering in a smooth transition to electric trucks, until DeJoy explained that the initial projection was for only 10% electric vehicles.
On the heels of a tsunami of criticism, on March 23 DeJoy unveiled a service-wide modernization plan that stipulated 100% fleet electrification by 2035. That pace is still less than optimal, and some members of Congress are pushing to accelerate the EV timeline by providing more money for purchasing more electric trucks more quickly.
They Make EV Batteries, After All
Part of the initial of the Oshkosh contract criticism stemmed from a report in Bloomberg on March 10, which indicated that Oshkosh Corp. raised concerns about the company’s EV expertise in a securities filing last November. The report also noted that Oshkosh executives downplayed those concerns in a January 2021 earnings call, telling investors that their plans for the Postal Service fleet covered both ICE and electric trucks, along with retrofit potential.
It seems that Oshkosh had a good reason to be more confident this year than last year.
On June 9, Oshkosh Corp. announced the delivery of its first electric fire truck and unveiled its new Volterra™ electric platform, which was developed by its subsidiary Pierce Manufacturing.
“The first Pierce® Volterra zero-emissions pumper has been placed on duty with the City of Madison Fire Department in Wisconsin, making this the first electric fire truck in service in North America. The Volterra pumper is serving front line duty at Station 8, the City of Madison’s busiest fire station, supporting a population of over 250,000,” Oshkosh enthused.
In the announcement, Oshkosh emphasized that the new electric trucks build on the company’s decades-long experience in electrification, beginning with an electric boom lift in the 1990s through its JLG Industries branch.
Oshkosh plans to use the Volterra platform across its Fire & Emergency division. Next up is the Volterra hybrid Striker® aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle, which will be touring airports around the country this summer.
More Electric Trucks For The US Postal Service
Oshkosh also appeared to leverage the new announcement to allay concerns about its ability to design specialized electric vehicles for any customer, including the US Postal Service.
“Category leading innovations, developed with direct input from our customers, is a hallmark of our Company,” said Oshkosh EVP and President for Fire & Emergency, Jim Johnson.
“Our electric vehicles designed around Oshkosh Corporation’s proprietary and patented technologies will provide the environmental benefits fire departments request, without compromising on the leading-edge operational performance, functionality, safety attributes, customization, or the traditional configurations and styling customers expect from our fire apparatus,” he added.
As applied to fire trucks, the meat of the Pierce Volterra platform is an “Oshkosh patented parallel-electric drivetrain featuring an electro-mechanical infinitely variable transmission allows zero-emissions operation when powered by the integrated onboard batteries.”
The electric trucks are designed to operate on on 100% electric power under normal conditions. If an extended emergency kicks in, ICE technology will take over. After all, better safe than sorry.
Electric Trucks By Any Other Name Are Still Electric
Some day in the sparkling green future, battery technology will improve to the point where an ICE backup is not necessary for specialty vehicles. Until then, fuel efficiency and biofuels can help cut emissions for heavy duty vehicles over the near term. That’s another area in which some interesting developments may be on the horizon for the US Postal Service, considering its reliance on long haul trucks.
Oshkosh Defense already has a hybrid system called ProPulse under its belt, which consists of a fuel efficient diesel engine that powers an all-axle electric drive. The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory helped to finance a starter version of the hybrid electric technology back in 2003, with the aim of cutting emissions from garbage trucks. Oshkosh has demonstrated the system on its 35,000 pound Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck for the US Army, claiming a 20%-35% fuel savings over conventional technology depending on speed.
The truck also features on-board energy storage, which can be deployed to power stationary facilities like airfields and hospitals. Back in 2010 Oshkosh demonstrated the energy storage system on the Phalanx truck-mounted missile interceptor system, so there’s that. The US Postal Service might not ever need a Phalanx truck-mounted missile system, but mobile sorting equipment and other devices might come in handy.
Another other option is fuel cell technology. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been struggling in the passenger car market, but the heavy duty usage field has picked up the torch. A growing number of manufacturers are dipping into the technology for buses and long haul trucks as well as aircraft, watercraft, and locomotives.
The Postal Service has a history in electric mobility that dates back to 1899. No, really! The attention shifted massively over to compressed natural gas after the Energy Policy Act of 1992, but it looks like interest in fuel cell technology picked up around 2005.
In 2018 the Postal Service piloted a fuel cell conversion system for electric trucks. The project was supported by the US Department of Energy and yielded promising results in terms of reducing emissions, though one of the lessons learned appears to be that fuel cell electric trucks should be designed from scratch rather than trying to retrofit fuel cells onto existing vehicles.
Also, in 2017, our friends over at Plug Power revved up a five-year fuel cell truck contract with the US Postal Service, so it appears the Post Office may already have a few other tricks up its zero emission sleeve in addition to battery-powered vehicles.
The big question now is how fast the Postal Service can cut emissions, considering that catastrophic global warming is looming right around the corner and impacts are already occurred in parts of the world.
That’s up to members of Congress, who control the purse strings and enact the policies. President Biden is sticking to his climate action guns along with almost every Democrat, but almost every Republican member of Congress is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has vowed to put the freeze on Biden’s plans for, well, just about everything. Game on!
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Electric fire truck (cropped) courtesy of Oshkosh Corp.
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