On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced he wants the U.S. government to electrify its vehicle fleet as part of his climate and jobs initiatives.
"The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean, electric vehicles made right here in America by American workers, creating millions of jobs—a million autoworker jobs in clean energy—and vehicles that are net-zero emissions," Biden said in prepared remarks. He further established a climate task force that will, among other things, work with existing agencies to create a plan within 90 days to electrify the vehicle fleet.
The plan specifically includes the United States Postal Service, the owner of the largest portion of the government's fleet. Of the federal government's 645,047 vehicles, 34 percent of them (225,668) belong to the USPS, according to the Government Service Administration, the agency that manages the federal government's real estate, vehicles, and administrative services.
On paper, the USPS's delivery fleet is an ideal candidate for electrification. Trucks travel predictable, relatively short routes every day—the longest mail route in the country is 187.6 miles in rural Oklahoma, but most routes cover between 10 and 30 miles per day in addition to any walking the postal worker does—well within the range of electric vehicles (EVs) on the market today. Plus, postal trucks park in the same lot nightly, where charging infrastructure can be installed. EVs have many fewer parts than gas cars and are therefore more reliable and cheaper to maintain. The savings could be especially pronounced for postal trucks that have to start and stop, and turn on and off, more often than most vehicles, which expedites wear and tear.
“I think locking in another vehicle cycle of mostly gas-powered USPS vehicles would be a huge mistake,” Carnegie Mellon University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Costa Samaras told Motherboard.
But the question facing the Biden administration is not whether EVs are a good choice for the USPS. It is whether the USPS is actually going to buy them, and what, if anything, the Biden administration or Congress can do about it after years of making the USPS less like a government agency and more like a private company.
Do you know anything about the USPS’s vehicle procurement? Send Aaron Gordon an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The USPS is not like most other federal agencies, if you can even call it an agency at all. It's an "independent establishment" technically under the executive branch. But, after the Postal Department was reconstituted in 1971 under the Postal Reorganization Act, the postmaster general ceased to be a cabinet-level position. Instead, the postmaster general is appointed by the board of governors, who are themselves appointed by the president. This was done with the express purpose of making the USPS more like a corporation and less like a government agency. Along those lines, the USPS receives no federal funding.
This is a super important consideration for the EV question, as it means the federal government cannot attach an EV requirement to federal dollars the USPS is already getting. Instead, the USPS must cover its own costs despite having been saddled with tens of billions of dollars in debt by Congress after budget watchdogs noticed the USPS had been overpaying into retiree and health benefit accounts for decades.
As a result, the USPS buys and leases almost all of its own vehicles rather than going through the GSA. Technically, these vehicles count as part of the federal vehicle fleet, but in policy matters the USPS fleet is typically treated as separate. For example, former GSA commissioner of public buildings Dorothy Robyn recently analyzed the prospects of government vehicle electrification but excluded the USPS fleet from her analysis.
Meanwhile, the USPS's fleet has been aging badly. For years, postal trucks have been literally bursting into flames because they're 26 to 33 years old, well past the useful life cycle expected when they were manufactured beginning in 1987, and the general vibe at the USPS is to squeeze every last bit of life out of the things until they burn, up to an including welding together charred frames from past trucks to form a new one.
Obviously, it was never any secret these vehicles would eventually need to be replaced, but the program to do so, dubbed the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle Program, has been repeatedly delayed for many reasons ranging from budgetary concerns to COVID. In December, the USPS announced it "is now nearing the end of the extensive process" and expects to announce a decision by March, meaning it's quite possible the USPS will award a contract for new vehicles before Biden's climate task force even completes its review.
Which brings us to the question at hand: will the winner be all-electric? All in all, it doesn't look good.
Thanks to federal procurement rules designed to limit political influence in awarding government contracts, we don't know an awful lot about the bidders, what they're offering, and whether the USPS is even taking Biden's recent policies into account.
According to Trucks.com, which has been closely following the bidding process for years, there are three teams still competing for the contract: a joint bid with Oshkosh and Ford for a gas vehicle modeled on the Ford Transit cargo van, another joint bid with Morgan Olson and Turkey-based Karsan for a plug-in hybrid, and an all-electric bid by Workhorse Group, a small Ohio-based startup. All the bidding teams and the USPS are under non-disclosure agreements and are not authorized to discuss the bidding process or their offerings.
A USPS spokesperson refused to even acknowledge Biden's announcement regarding electrifying the fleet when asked directly by Motherboard. (Update: after publication, a USPS spokesperson said it is reviewing the information but withholding comment until that review is complete.)
While the decision has obviously not yet been made, things don't look good for the EV-only option. First, Workhorse Group has limited manufacturing experience. A few weeks ago, it received its largest order to date for 6,320 trucks, a far cry from the 150,000 or so vehicles the USPS is potentially looking for.
Second, government agencies like the USPS tend to pay more attention to upfront costs rather than lifetime savings and operating expenses, which will obviously work against EVs that cost more to buy but have lower maintenance costs and cheaper "fuel" costs because electricity is cheaper than gas.
Third, the USPS has stated in the past it is powertrain-agnostic for this procurement, indicating it places no particular weight on the environmental and health benefits EVs offer, not to mention the potential savings for their own operations.
Finally, the USPS has been burned by EVs before. Michael Ravnitzky, who served as chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2015 and wrote a conference paper exploring delivery vehicle electrification, told Motherboard that in 2001 the USPS purchased 500 electric vehicles from Ford modeled on the Ford Ranger EV but the project was, in his words, "very unsuccessful" because of battery issues and a lack of replacements. Although battery technology has made a ton of progress in the last 20 years, a trademark of staid government bureaucracies is that every success is quickly forgotten and every failure is marked off, carved in stone, and not again approached for several generations.
The Biden administration has few, if any, options on the table. It can, in Ravnitzky's words, "encourage the Postal Service to consider [EVs] strongly," which is essentially what is happening with the recent executive order, but it cannot require them to buy EVs on its own. Congress could, but that is also unlikely according to Ravnitzky.
"In the last recession, the USPS government affairs office pushed back very strenuously against money for USPS earmarked for electric vehicles," he told Motherboard, something his boss at the time, PRC Commissioner Ruth Goldway, publicly advocated for. USPS officials are likely to do so again, as the USPS, like any entity that fancies itself a corporation, hates being told what to do by the government no matter the dictate.
There is room for negotiation here. Potentially, Congress and the USPS could work on an agreement to make an EV procurement—and the funding for it—a condition of revising the 2003 Postal Enhancement and Accountability Act that torpedoed the USPS's finances. But such a practical, mutually beneficial exchange between Congress and the USPS cuts against decades of hostility, lack of productivity, and poor results that, taken in total, is just one of many examples of how Congress has utterly failed in its duty to serve the public's interest. In other words, it's unlikely.
The fact is, the president and Congress are unlikely to influence the USPS's vehicle purchases because that's the way the architects of the modern USPS wanted it. Corporations, which the USPS is supposed to mimic, don't make choices for the benefit of the environment, the government, or society as a whole. A stern lecture from the new president is unlikely to change that.