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The US Postal Service will buy 10,000 electric trucks—and 40,000 gas-guzzlers

United States Postal Service (USPS) workers load mail into delivery trucks outside a post office.
United States Postal Service (USPS) workers load mail into delivery trucks outside a post office.

The US Postal Service (USPS) is about to replace its aging fleet of mail-delivery trucks, most of which were built between 1987 and 1994. The classic Grumman LLV mail trucks lack basic safety features such as airbags and eke out about 8.2 miles per gallon, around half the industry standard.

The Biden administration is pushing the USPS, an independent entity within the executive branch, to upgrade to electric vehicles, in line with a Dec. 8 White House executive order directing all federal agencies to fully electrify their fleets of cars and trucks by 2035. Instead, the USPS announced on March 24 that it had ordered 50,000 new mail trucks from defense contractor Oshkosh for $3 billion, and only 20% of the order (10,019 trucks) will be electric.

The new USPS electric mail truck features a lower, flatter hood.
The new USPS electric mail truck features a lower, flatter hood.

The new models will include much-needed safety features and basic comforts like air conditioning, but their fuel efficiency will barely improve over the old 1980s model: 8.6 miles per gallon with the air conditioner running, or 14.7 miles per gallon without A/C.

Critics have skewered the plan.

When USPS originally announced the plan in February, it planned to buy just 5,000 electric trucks. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which reviewed the USPS estimate, criticized the organization for not moving quickly enough to electrify its delivery trucks. “The Postal Service’s proposal as currently crafted represents a crucial lost opportunity to more rapidly reduce the carbon footprint of one of the largest government fleets in the world,” EPA associate administrator Vicki Arroyo wrote in a Feb. 2 letter (pdf) to USPS.

So after public outcry, pushback from the EPA, and a Feb. 24 congressional hearing in which lawmakers grilled postmaster general Louis DeJoy for not moving faster to electrify the mail fleet, the USPS budged ever so slightly. On March 24, it doubled the size of its original electric truck order from 5,000 to 10,019 trucks.

The USPS disagrees electric trucks are cheaper

FedEx, Walmart, UPS, and Amazon are all placing massive orders for electric delivery trucks. Amazon alone plans to buy 100,000 electric trucks. They save money, says Mitch Jackson, the chief sustainability officer for FedEx. “That experience that we’ve had over the last decade with respect to electric vehicles…not only did they have high operational efficiency and performance, but they were also cheaper to operate as well,” Jackson told NPR. The company will only purchase electric pickup and delivery vehicles by 2030.

USPS disagrees. It claims it would save an estimated $3.3 billion in terms of total cost of ownership (including the trucks’ sticker price, fuel, and maintenance over the next 20 years) by buying conventional vehicles, according to a December 2021 USPS report (pdf). Ordering 100% electric trucks would raise manufacturing costs, but would reduce operational expenses as well as the post office’s carbon emissions by 865,000 metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking 186,000 passenger cars off the road. Instead the agency’s “preferred alternative” is buying 10% electric trucks and 90% gas-powered trucks, reducing emissions by just 290,000 metric tons.

Critics, including the EPA, have disputed the USPS cost of ownership estimate. The figure is based on an assumption that gas will cost $2.14 in 2022 and rise to just $2.55 by 2040. The US national average gas price is currently $4.24, and has more than doubled over the past two decades. Companies with billions of dollars at stake are also betting that electric vehicles will be cheaper than their existing fleets.

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