The sight of a USPS postal van driving around, or stopped by the side of the road with its blinkers on, is a familiar site for most Americans. And rightly so; these vehicles have been on the roads for over 26 years, well past their intended duration of use.
David Roberts suggests that now might be the perfect time for the electrification of the USPS postal van fleet. His arguments are wide-ranging, including environmental, economic, and political. I want to focus on the environmental and practical reasons why electrification makes a lot of sense, particularly for the type of operations that the postal vans do on a daily basis.
There are two aspects to postal logistics, each with very different requirements and timeframes. The main logistics operations occur mostly behind the scenes, overnight, at large postal sorting facilities, warehouses, and airports, across the country. But what most people see and experience is the “last mile,” that is, the actual delivery of items to its final destination at homes and businesses.
The last mile delivery is a perfect example where an electric drivetrain particularly suits the demands. Roberts argues that electrification solves several problems at once.
For last mile delivery, an electric drivetrain is particularly well-suited. For example, electric drivetrains have (1) more torque and acceleration, and negligible energy loss during idle, (2) fewer moving parts for less need of maintenance, (3) reduced emissions where they are difficult to control, i.e. at the vehicle rather than a power plant, and (4) significantly cheaper for the USPS in the long run. I discuss this topic in more detail, specifically in the context of aviation and its requirements, in my earlier post on the Dilemma of Electric Aviation.
The post office primarily delivers during the daytime. Therefore, the vehicles can easily be charged overnight when electricity costs are significantly reduced. Electricity infrastructure is already widespread and so retrofitting post offices with charging stations does not seem to be too challenging.
While I am certainly not an expert on electric grid optimization, I suppose that charging postal vehicles during the night would create a baseline demand to help absorb the excess output of traditional power sources, such as natural gas or nuclear. These types of power plants must remain functional at all times, (1) as a backup source and (2) as they cannot easily be switched on and off rapidly.
Additionally, Amazon has made some advances in partnership with Rivian, developing a vehicle platform that could also be adapted for the postal service.
Interestingly, Roberts pointed out that these vehicles, which collectively drive to almost every address in the United States every day, would be a powerful platform for mounting weather sensors. This is a fascinating application that I would not have thought of. While this certainly does not require electrification, I think it is interesting.
Earlier this year, when I wrote about the dilemma of electric aviation, where I mentioned that ground-based transport would likely be the biggest driver of electric innovation. I think that the electrification of the USPS postal van fleet would be a powerful statement and would likely contribute positively to the public perception of electric vehicles.
Roberts argues that now is a great time to act. I’m inclined to agree and I think that such action would be an incredibly large step in the right direction.
“A No-Brainer Stimulus Idea: Electrify USPS Mail Trucks,” by David Roberts, April 22, 2020. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/4/22/21229132/usps-coronavirus-electrify-postal-trucks
“The Dilemma of Electric Aviation,” by Sahil Nawab, January 10, 2020. http://www.sahilnawab.com/blog/the-dilemma-of-electric-aviation/