Postal workers, who are excited about the prospect of making deliveries in modern, comfortable, and environmentally friendly vehicles, are still driving their aging, spartan trucks.
The primary fleet, which dates back to 1987, was set to be replaced under a new contract, but the winning bid for the new trucks is being challenged. As a result, the delivery of new trucks scheduled for 2023 may be postponed.
The majority of employees are unconcerned about which model they receive. They simply want something secure.
More than 150 of the vehicles on the road today have caught fire. They lack adequate heating and cooling, have poor fuel economy, and are difficult to maintain. The Grumman Long Life Vehicle lived up to its moniker. They were in service from 1987 to 1994, with a 24-year service life guarantee. The oldest has survived approximately 34 years of arduous use on the daily mail routes from snowy Maine to sunny California.
Most postal workers will tell you that even in their prime, they weren’t all that great.
They’re built on a Ford chassis with a Grumman body, and they’re powered by a four-cylinder engine that was supposed to provide fuel economy but only gets about 9 miles per gallon (4 kilometers per liter) on stop-and-go routes. Modern safety features such as airbags and anti-lock brakes are absent. Inadequate heating is a major flaw in Maine’s cold winters.
Worse, the lack of air conditioning allows temperatures inside the vehicles to soar to dangerous levels on hot summer days. During a heat wave in California earlier this summer, a postal worker died of heat stroke.
Fires are now a common hazard. On its website, the Postal Times keeps a running tally as well as photos. So far this year, there have been 19 of them, with five occurring in July.
Kathleen Shunstrom witnessed one of them go up in flames in Florida. When she opened her blinds, she saw her local carrier’s postal truck on fire in her neighbor’s driveway in Niceville, Florida’s Panhandle. After delivering a package, the carrier noticed her vehicle was smoking. It had already caught fire by the time someone dialed 911. No one was injured.
The United States Postal Service has over 230,000 vehicles. According to USPS spokesperson Kim Frum, this includes 190,000 local delivery vehicles, with more than 141,000 of those being Grumman LLVs.
A competitive bid process was supposed to be a watershed moment.
Oshkosh Defense of Wisconsin won the contract for the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle in February, with the first deliveries scheduled for late 2023.
It’s a more environmentally friendly vehicle with modern amenities such as climate control and safety features such as air bags, backup cameras, and collision avoidance. The trucks are also taller, making it easier for postal carriers to pick up packages and parcels, which made up a much larger portion of their deliveries even before the pandemic.
However, in June, a losing bidder, Workhorse Group of Ohio, challenged the decision’s fairness.
There is no deadline for protest decisions, but according to David Ralston and Frank Murray of Foley & Lardner LLP in Washington, contract challenges typically take four to five months from filing to decision. Oshkosh Defense’s initial contract was for $482 million for retooling and building out its factory, but the value could rise into the billions if Oshkosh delivers 165,000 vehicles over the next decade. In its contract challenge, Workhorse Group estimated the total contract value at up to $3.1 billion.
With so much money at stake, any decision could be appealed to the Court of Appeals, extending the timetable even further. For the time being, Oshkosh is still getting started as the challenge unfolds.
Oshkosh Defense, which proposed a hybrid of gas and electric vehicles, and Workhorse, which proposed an all-electric fleet, both declined to comment. Graham is familiar with his vehicle in Portland. In icy conditions, rear-wheel drive vehicles spin around, so he knows to be cautious. They smell like exhaust fumes. The transmission occasionally slips out of gear.
However, the most common complaint now, in the summer, is the heat. The dashboard has a fan, but it doesn’t do much to keep things cool.
Graham claims that during the summer, he throws his lunch on the dashboard in the middle of the morning. “By lunchtime, it’ll be steaming hot,” he predicted.