By Bernie Becker – April 26, 2015
Top lawmakers are laughing off the possibility that the U.S. Postal Service might rely on drones in the coming years.
The Postal Service is looking to turn over what is widely viewed as an outdated fleet of delivery vehicles, seeking roughly 180,000 new vehicles to replace the familiar white, boxy trucks that have been in use for as long as a quarter-century.
The chance for a contract that could exceed $5 billion has drawn the interest of a string of corporate heavyweights, including Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Nissan. But it’s also attracted the bid of the Workhorse Group, an Ohio company that wants to pair electric vehicles with package-delivering drones.
Members of Congress who concentrate on postal issues generally agree that the Postal Service could stand to bring its vehicle fleet into the 21st century. But they also said they hadn’t heard of the drone proposal. Once informed, they didn’t seem to believe there’s much potential in a marriage bringing together drones and USPS, which has been criticized for being slow to adapt to the new challenges and opportunities brought by technology.
“Would that be for air mail?” Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees USPS, said with a laugh. “Quote me on that, O.K.? Say when asked, Carper said: ‘Would that be for air mail?’ Obviously not for snail mail.”
Carper added that he’s been meeting with other senators about postal issues, with an upcoming roundtable to focus on the agency’s future challenges. Still, he insisted: “I wouldn’t put my money on the Postal Service using drones any time soon.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.), a senior Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, had a similar take, even as he too knocked the Postal Service for being behind the times technologically.
“There are things I need to worry about. And there are things that are very unlikely to happen,” Lynch said, making it clear that drones delivering packages for the Postal Service fell in the second category.
Still, there’s plenty of reason to believe that drones could soon play a more prominent role in commercial delivery — not least because the online shopping giant Amazon has been pushing the idea. Amazon received permission just this month from the Federal Aviation Administration to test outdoor delivery drones.
The idea of delivery drones raises new safety questions, especially after a drone landed on the White House lawn this year. But Steve Burns, Workhorse’s chief executive, said that he’s pitching USPS on the chance to be forward thinking in a variety of ways, by employing drones and combination electric/hybrid vehicles.
The key, Burns said, is for the Postal Service to imagine how deliveries might take place in 2040, when the next fleet of vehicles might get retired, and not how they happen in 2015.
“Think how the whole world will be watching if they see the United State Postal Service is going electric and maybe even using drones,” Burns said.
The Postal Service’s efforts to make over its vehicle fleet is still in its early stages, with a phased roll-out of new vehicles not expected until at least 2018. Fifteen companies are now in the process of giving USPS more detailed proposals, after the agency first asked for bids in January. Several of those 15 companies will next be asked to develop a prototype for the Postal Service to examine.
Other companies are also proposing electric vehicles, and AM General, the maker of Humvees, is also trying to get the USPS contract.
Sarah Ninivaggi, a USPS spokeswoman, said that the agency was seeking vehicles with better fuel economy, to help both the Postal Service’s bottom line and the environment.
USPS, which has lost billions of dollars in recent years, also wants vehicles that are better suited for delivering packages, at a time when online shopping is increasingly on the rise. The agency’s current fleet is now designed for the sort of mail — letters and bills, for instance — that have declined in volume in recent years.
Ninivaggi said that safety would be just one of a slew of considerations USPS would take into account when awarding the contract. “All options will be chosen with the safety of customers and employees top of mind,” she told The Hill in an email.
Burns said that drones and electric trucks would be delivery partners under Workhorse’s bid. Drones, he said, could deliver packages to the front of a house, and then double back as the truck continued its route along the road.
“The whole premise is that the driver can keep moving,” Burns said.
The drones would be able to charge themselves throughout the route on the larger battery being used to run the delivery truck. The set-up would also generally keep the drone fairly close to the delivery truck, at a time when the FAA has proposed regulations that would require an operator to keep a commercial drone within their sights.
Burns added that the sheer size of the USPS contract — perhaps the biggest ever for vehicles — would make life difficult for even automotive giants like Ford. And while he acknowledged that some might laugh at the idea of USPS using drones, he also said that the novelty factor and the publicity that comes with it could help his company’s bid.
“I think you’d see people in the early days gather on the stoop to see the drones work,” Burns said. “It’ll be fascinating.”
At least one top lawmaker thinks Workhorse could be on to something.
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) thought the Postal Service would be foolish not to consider drones, though he argued that rural routes might be a better fit than urban or suburban ones.
“I think it’s worth looking at. The world’s changing,” Chaffetz said. “Drones are here to stay. The technology’s easy and pervasive. So can it be used for legitimate commercial purposes? Yeah, I think so.”
Still, Chaffetz also couldn’t help but toss out a joke about the bid to bring drones to USPS.
“Does it include a gyrocopter?” he said, referencing the postal worker who flew to the Capitol grounds this month.