The Great EVs For USPS Debate Continues As Workhorse Sues Over Lost Contract

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The contract to replace the current fleet of USPS delivery vehicles has been in play for years. The existing vehicles are now about 35 years old. They are worn out and cost a fortune to maintain. They should have been replaced years ago but politics got in the way, and so they have soldiered on through rain, snow, sleet, and gloom of night because when all is said and done, the mail must go through.

To those of us at CleanTechnica, replacing those old vehicles manufactured by Grumman with new battery electric vehicles makes perfect sense. Postal vehicles do a lot of stop and go driving. EVs are much more efficient under those conditions as there are no internal combustion engines idling for hours while the minions from the post office make their appointed rounds. Also, regenerative braking would significantly reduce wear and tear on brakes.

EVs are highly appealing to fleet operators, which measure operating costs to the nearest tenth of a cent. Yes, electric vehicles today cost more than a comparable gas-powered model but when total cost of ownership is taken into account, they cost less to own over their useful life. Fleet managers are all about the triple net bottom line and fully understand what costs more to purchase may be wind up being the least expensive option when all is said and done.

So we were more than a little surprised when the contract to build a fleet of new vehicles for the USPS was awarded to Oshkosh Defense, whose bid called for a mix consisting of 90% gasoline-powered and 10% battery electric vehicles. But don’t worry, Oshkosh assured us, because at some point in the future, all those engines and transmissions could be ripped out and replaced with battery electric powertrains when the time was right. No one so far has said how much that would cost!

Not only that, Oshkosh went on to say those gas engines would all be state of the art, ultra efficient items with very low exhaust emissions. Well, that’s certainly good news, except for the fact that Oshkosh doesn’t make engines. No details were offered about what company would supply all those engines and no specs for them were ever given. It’s reminiscent of the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones is assured the Ark will be under the care and control of “top men” whose identities are never revealed.

Right up until the time of the announcement, Workhorse, the electric vehicle startup, was thought to be a leading contender. And when the new administration announced bold initiatives to electrify the government’s entire fleet of light duty vehicles, that also seemed to be a hopeful sign for Workhorse.

Selecting a company that proposed to build mostly new gasoline-powered vehicles seemed to be a slap in the face to all EV proponents, particularly because this new crop of postal vehicles will be in service until 2040 and beyond. The current vehicles have been trudging along for 35 years, which means some if not all of the next generation could still be spewing exhaust fumes into the atmosphere well past the midpoint of the current century. Is there no justice?

That’s precisely what Workhorse is wondering. In fact, it has filed suit against USPS seeking to invalidate the new contract, alleging that the postal service was fundamentally opposed to electric vehicles all along and basically put the kibosh on the Workhorse proposal because of that anti-EV bias.

The details of the lawsuit are vague, nobody is talking very much on the record, and from all that can be gleaned, the lawsuit is based on allegations made by anonymous sources to the Washington Post that the USPS never seriously considered the Workhorse bid in the first place. The suit asks for a preliminary injunction against the postal service going forward with the contract until the court can hear the merits of the case.

One of those anonymous sources says, “The allegations are that basically that the postal service never planned to seriously consider Workhorse and they put their thumb on the scale to select against Workhorse.” Of course, at the time the contract was awarded, the USPS board of directors was controlled by Republicans and the agency itself was under the control of Louis DeJoy, an appointee of the former alleged president.

There is also the possibility that DeJoy nixed the Workhorse proposal simply because the prototype was so ugly. We know Workhorse is a startup, but any 6th grader could design a vehicle that is less painful to look at.

The biggest problem the postal service has confronted over the past several decades is that the world of communications has changed radically since the days of the Pony Express and there are doubts about what its proper role is in an largely digital society. Pummeled by politicians on the left and the right, it is somewhat amazing the agency has continued to function at all.

The situation, like everything in politics, may come down to greasing a few palms in the halls of Congress. The situation is analogous to the brouhaha between LG Energy Solution and SK Innovation after the US trade representative issued an order excluding SKI from the US market for a period of 10 years. In the end, SKI reluctantly agreed to pay LG a few billion dollars and everybody was happy.

Several Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation to increase funding to the USPS so it can afford to buy electric delivery vehicles instead of gas-powered ones, although that plan will probably get the cold shoulder from Republicans, who instantly label any idea from Democrats as a commie plot designed to undermine the American “way of life,” whatever that means.

In other words, this game is still in play and anything could happen. No doubt Oshkosh and its legal beagles will strenuously oppose the Workhorse litigation and will appeal any decision that does not go its way all the way to the Supreme Court. And at some point, an agreement will be reached, one that saves face and allows everyone to get a slice of the pie.

And what a pie it is! The contract is the largest single purchase agreement for new vehicles in the history of the universe and will cost an estimated $6 billion over the next 8 years or so. Government contracts being what they are, expect the final total to be significantly more.

This isn’t about electric versus gasoline-powered vehicles. It is about politics and power and bare knuckle brawls in backrooms and courtrooms. Grab some popcorn. This could get interesting!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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