Amid backlash, USPS orders more EVs — but will still mostly run on gas

The U.S. Postal Service placed an initial order for 10,000 electric trucks as it works to overhaul its aging mail-delivery fleet.

A postal worker inserts mail into a residential mailbox while driving an electric postal delivery truck
An illustration of the U.S. Postal Service's "next-generation delivery vehicles," which will include both gasoline- and battery-powered versions (USPS/Oshkosh)
  • Link copied to clipboard

When the U.S. Postal Service signed a 10-year contract last year with Oshkosh Defense to revamp the nation’s aging mail trucks, the deal sparked swift backlash from the Biden administration and environmental leaders. The Postal Service planned to order up to 165,000 new delivery vehicles, most of which would run on gasoline, owing to the higher upfront costs of electric vehicles. Critics argued that putting more fossil fuel trucks on the road would run counter to U.S. efforts to address climate change and reduce toxic tailpipe pollution. 

This week, the Postal Service appeared to budge on the issue, doubling the number of 5,000 battery-powered vehicles in its original plan to more than 10,000 trucks.

After further review, the agency determined that increasing its initial electric vehicle purchase makes good sense from an operational and financial perspective,” Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said in a statement on Thursday.

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

But the Postal Service’s initial $2.98 billion order with Wisconsin-based Oshkosh still includes some 40,000 gas-guzzling internal combustion engine vehicles.

The announcement about the new EV trucks drew mixed responses from the Postal Service’s critics. U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said that while she appreciated the larger share of electric trucks, it still wasn’t enough to clean up the entire fleet.

The Postal Service must prioritize the acquisition of electric vehicles or it will be stuck with outdated technology that further pollutes our environment for decades,” Maloney (D-New York) said, according to the Associated Press.

The 10,000 electric delivery trucks will join the agency’s relatively tiny roster of electric vehicles, including 15 battery-powered vans in Central California as well as spotter” trucks that shuffle trailers around a distribution facility in San Francisco.

The fight to electrify the nation’s aging mail delivery fleet

Transportation accounts for nearly 30 percent of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other single sector. Last year, President Joe Biden directed federal officials to begin working to convert all federal, state, local and tribal fleet vehicles to clean and zero-emission vehicles” — including the Postal Service’s full fleet of 212,000 mail trucks. 

The Postal Service is an independent government agency, and many vehicles in its nationwide fleet first began hauling letters and packages more than three decades ago. Postal officials have said it would cost an extra $3.3 billion to convert the full fleet to electric vehicles, due to both the higher upfront cost of battery-powered trucks and the additional expense of installing electric charging infrastructure at postal facilities.

A postal working wearing a beanie, sunglasses and a face mask inserts a parcel into a black residential mailbox
A postal worker delivers mail in an existing gas-powered truck. (USPS)

The Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality recently sent letters to the Postal Service suggesting there were substantial flaws in how the agency assessed the environmental impacts of gas-powered vehicles and the total potential costs of operating electric trucks. Earlier this month, a group of House Democrats, including Rep. Maloney, called for an investigation into Postmaster DeJoy’s decision to continue burning gasoline to deliver the nation’s mail.

Kim Frum, a spokesperson for the Postal Service, said in an email to Canary Media that should Congress provide more funding, the Postal Service has the flexibility to increase the number of electric vehicles introduced…even after an order is placed,” opening up the possibility that the 10,000 electric trucks won’t be the last.

First of 10,000 electric delivery trucks will hit the road next year

As politicians and officials hash out the details, Oshkosh Defense is getting ready to produce the delivery vehicles.

Hiring and preparations are well underway” at the manufacturer’s new facility in Spartanburg, South Carolina, according to Alexandra Hittle, a spokesperson for Oshkosh. The company expects to begin producing its next-generation delivery vehicles in the summer of 2023, and the first vehicles should appear on carrier routes by late next year.

Both the gas- and battery-powered models will be right-hand drive vehicles equipped with air conditioning — a feature missing from current trucks — as well as advanced vehicle and safety technology, such as 360-degree cameras, automatic braking, and front- and rear-collision avoidance systems. The trucks will have a bigger cargo space of 263 cubic feet and a payload of 2,000 pounds. This should allow mail carriers to deliver more letters over fewer trips, improving their efficiency.

Oshkosh Defense, a subsidiary of Oshkosh Corp., primarily makes tactical vehicles for military operations, though the company has made electric products since the mid-1990s, starting with an electric boom lift. Its sister company Pierce recently developed a battery-powered platform for fire trucks and emergency vehicles. Hittle said Oshkosh developed a new EV system for the Postal Service vehicles. 

Specific details about the mail truck’s battery size and supplier aren’t yet available. But the electric trucks must be able to drive at least 70 miles without recharging their batteries. The vehicles should be able to run their heating and cooling system and electric accessories for most of the eight to 10 hours that postal workers typically drive the trucks each day, said the Postal Service’s Frum.

As it turns out, the Postal Service’s electric vans in California already do just that.

Electric postal vans could be suitable replacements, California study shows

The 15-van delivery fleet was born out of a $7 million initiative led by California state agencies to improve air quality and reduce tailpipe emissions in San Joaquin Valley — an agricultural hub that remains one of the nation’s most heavily polluted regions.

Two manufacturers, Motiv Power Systems and Cummins, converted the large delivery vehicles to run on battery power. Unlike the Postal Service’s new trucks, which carry mail from door to door, these delivery vans move large volumes of mail from central facilities to post offices in Fresno and Stockton. However, the vans still have similar operational requirements, driving routes of up to 75 miles and running for some six to 10 hours a day, Frum said.

Large white electric postal delivery vans sit in a parking lot attached to chargers
Electric delivery vans are shown charging their batteries at a U.S. Postal Service depot in Fresno, California. (Motiv Power Systems)

In 2019, researchers put data-logging devices on a dozen electric delivery vans and six vans with internal combustion engines. A year later, after crunching the numbers, they found the electric vans had the fuel-efficiency equivalent of 29.2 miles per gallon, versus just 8.4 miles per gallon for the conventional vehicles. The battery-powered vans produced no carbon dioxide emissions, while the petroleum-burning vans emitted nearly 79,000 pounds of CO2 over the study period.

The biggest hurdle wasn’t operating the vehicles but rather figuring out how to install charging infrastructure at the post offices, program leaders said in a 2020 webinar.

The Fresno site required adding a new electrical panel and transformer to accommodate the extra electricity demand, ultimately costing the program $175,000 to install 10 chargers. The Stockton site’s infrastructure cost only about $39,000 to install, but it involved running power cables through the ceiling of a parking dock to avoid trucks backing into the chargers.

Even so, the leaders deemed the project a success, noting that the electric delivery vans can operate as replacements for conventionally fueled trucks.”

Frum said the Postal Service is using data from the pilot program to assess the commercial viability of these vehicles.” She also noted that the delivery vehicles made by Oshkosh will have a flexible design platform” that can support either an internal combustion engine or battery-electric drivetrain technology. The Postal Service chose the truck because it recognizes that powertrain technology may change significantly” over the vehicles’ expected 20-year lifetime.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.