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Correction to This Article
The article about the U.S. Postal Service's plan to test a fleet of electric mail trucks said that the post office used electric vehicles in the early 1990s but stopped doing so because batteries were too big and gasoline was cheap. It was in the early 1900s that electric mail vehicles were in use.

U.S. Postal Service to test a repurposed electric vehicle fleet

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) with Gary Starr of ZAP, a firm competing for a USPS contract to design electric mail trucks.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) with Gary Starr of ZAP, a firm competing for a USPS contract to design electric mail trucks. (Zap Via Pr Newswire)
By Nicole Norfleet
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Whether it was delivering packages via locomotive or launching 3,000 letters inside a guided missile, the U.S. Postal Service has always pushed the envelope when it comes to transportation.

But with its fleet of aging delivery trucks -- and limited funds -- the agency needs another innovation.

Starting this summer, the Postal Service, which operates the world's largest civilian vehicle fleet, will begin a year-long pilot program of electric mail trucks in the Washington area, using vehicles converted by five manufacturers.

"We have been integral to transportation since Day One," said Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan, "so we consider this a role for us."

The experiment is the first field-testing of electric-powered long-life vehicles, a staple of postal delivery for decades. There are 142,000 delivery trucks still on the road. The small mail trucks are on their way to delivering their last packages -- most are between 20 and 25 years old. Last year, the Postal Service announced it would extend the lifespan of the vehicles to 30 years, buying the agency more time to make a decision about the future of its fleet while it wrestles with how to pay for replacements.

On Tuesday, the Postal Service announced that it expects to lose $238 billion during the next decade because of steep declines in mail volume and regulatory restrictions.

The Postal Service is "cannibalizing" its older trucks to keep the newer ones going, said Ruth Goldway, the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission and a supporter of electric conversion.

"At some point, they are going to have to [do] something," she said. "Right now, they are being very clever with keeping these older vehicles going."

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) introduced a bill Friday that would pay for 109,500 electric vehicles, though the cost of that program isn't known yet.

"This, to me, would be a very productive thing and . . . likely to produce jobs and revitalize an industry," Connolly said.

In December, Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) announced an "e-Drive" bill that would give $2 billion to the Energy Department and Postal Service to convert 20,000 mail trucks into electric vehicles.

Mail-delivery trucks are a perfect fit for electric conversion, said David Mazaika, chief operating officer for Quantum Technologies, an electric-car manufacturer based in California that is part of the pilot program. The other participating companies are Bright Automotive, EDAG, ZAP and Delaware-based AutoPort. The companies have six months to design and assemble the vehicles before a one-year demonstration begins this summer.

"The technology out there is ready," Mazaika said.

Electric vehicles are not new to the Postal Service. They were in use early in the 1990s but fell to the wayside because batteries were too big, and gas was incredibly cheap, said Nancy Pope, a curator at the National Postal Museum. Since then, the Postal Service has employed other alternative-fuel vehicles, including 30 electric trucks that are used to take mail to processing plants in New York City, Brennan said.

Electric-car manufacturers have been eyeing partnerships with the Postal Service for years. In 1996, the Postal Service teamed with General Motors to convert several delivery trucks to electric power, but GM ended up canceling its entire electric-vehicle program a couple years later because production costs were too high. In 2000, Ford was awarded a contract for 500 electric vehicles, but that program was canceled because of limited battery availability, and Ford dropped its electric-vehicle program because of high costs as well.

Goldway said it is unfortunate that the pilot program won't be done on a larger scale. The way the Postal Service handles the emergence of electric vehicles will affect its corporate image and show whether it is still cutting-edge or outdated, she said.

"I think this technology is perfectly suited for the Postal Service right now, just the way it is," she said. "They should seize the opportunity."

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