For most of its history, the postal service has stayed near the cutting edge of transportation technology. Five years after the B&O became America’s first railroad, the post office awarded the first contract for hauling mail by train. Congress authorized the first air mail eight years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. And when we built the interstate system, USPS took advantage, using trucks for long-haul routes and building on a century of experience saving money with stagecoach contracts. So it should surprise no one that USPS is experimenting with highly automated vehicles (HAVs) today. While HAV technology isn’t ready for the current postal vehicle order, USPS is already looking ahead for ways automation can make it a better mail carrier. Below, I highlight some particularly promising benefits HAVs could bring to USPS, drawing from a report by the USPS Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Letting Cars Drive for Letter Carriers

HAVs potentially could make carrier routes safer, faster and more reliable. As it stands, USPS has worsening problems on all three margins. As the USPS OIG notes in their study, postal vehicle crashes have increased about 50 percent in the last decade. Every year, about 12 postal workers die in motor vehicle incidents. While HAVs won’t prevent all of these losses, they could avoid some, making the job of delivering mail less risky than it is today.

Beyond safety, highly automated vehicles could change the task of delivering mail in ways that make routes faster to serve. With the car doing the driving, carriers can better prepare deliveries between stops. On rural or otherwise low-density routes, automated driving would mitigate the need for specialized right-hand-drive vehicles while saving an average of six seconds per stop in carrier time. With more than 45 million rural delivery points and service six days per week, full adoption would save USPS staff more than 23 million hours per year. While these numbers are estimates, the scale of USPS makes even small per-stop time savings add up quickly.

Beyond rural carriers, HAVs would also make the job of urban carriers who deliver to apartment mailrooms and individual door mailboxes cheaper and faster by autonomously parking while the carrier moves door to door. Not only would the automated vehicles save time, they would mitigate some of the congestion currently created by double-parked postal vehicles.

Perhaps the most important thing HAVs will do for mail will be increasing service reliability. As it stands, USPS employees regularly complete their shifts late. USPS guidelines call for all carrier routes to be complete by 6 p.m., but post offices regularly fail to meet this standard. A study of USPS’ South Florida district found a compliance rate of 61.3 percent, which varied between individual post offices. Elsewhere, a recent audit in the Denver area identified a compliance rate of 27.57 percent, with only 70.57 percent of carriers getting done by 8 p.m. Clearly, late mail carriers are a problem, one that costs the postal service a lot of money. South Florida post offices paid for more than 300,000 hours of overtime in 2017. Highly automated vehicles can avoid many of these delays and associated costs. With fewer tasks to manage and vehicles capable of driving and parking themselves, letter carriers would be more likely to get home on time in compliance with federal rules.

Cutting Highway Contract Route Costs

This spring, USPS conducted its first test of automated trucks to move mail between processing centers. The test shows that USPS is serious about the potential benefits HAVs could have for making mail service cheaper and more reliable, well before it orders a fleet of fully automated trucks.

Unlike mail delivery and pickup, automation for USPS highway routes would be carried out by postal contractors. USPS has long hired private companies to move mail long distances, taking advantage of costly-to-replicate private transportation networks. Its management has a duty to consider technology options that can work more efficiently. In the past, that meant contracting with railroads. Today, it means managing a network of trucking contractors. In the future, it will mean contracting with owners of automated truck fleets. By piloting automated trucking for the “middle mile” of mail service, USPS is already preparing for this reality.

Lowering Long-Term Healthcare Costs by Making Postal Work Less Strenuous

Making USPS more efficient and saving money on highway routes is well and good, but some of the biggest beneficiaries of postal vehicle automation will be letter carriers. Moving mail is a physically demanding job. The constant bending, lifting and hauling of heavy bags takes a toll on the bodies of the postal workforce. Is it any wonder USPS’ long-term health costs loom large on the agency’s balance sheet?

Mail truck automation stands to take at least some of the toil out of the process of mail carrying. This week, the agency received a patent for a system that would automate the process of sorting mail in the back of postal trucks. As it stands, postal workers do this preparation, a job that requires a lot of bending and reaching in the back of a non-air-conditioned truck.

Combined with automated driving and parking functions, automated onboard sorting would eliminate some of the most strenuous and least pleasant parts of mail delivery. This may save the government money, but it would definitely make life better for postal workers, both now and when they retire.

Automation is set to transform how the postal service does business. When the mail trucks drive themselves, everyone benefits. Customers get more reliable service, the agency saves money, and postal workers get a better job to do. The robots are coming. And the mail will be better as a result.

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