The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Inspector General’s office says it anticipates that autonomous vehicle technology will add only $7,000 to $10,000 to the purchase price of a postal truck by 2025.
Fully driverless autonomous vehicles won’t be available in the next five or 10 years, the Post Office says.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) is partnering with the University of Michigan to build a self-driving mail delivery truck and hopes to launch a fleet of the vehicles on rural routes nationwide as soon as 2025.
The USPS’ Office of the Inspector General revealed the plans in a 34-page report titled “Autonomous Vehicles for the Postal Service” that was released publicly on Oct. 2.
In the document, the USPS inspector general’s office details the plans for use of what the Post Office is calling an Autonomous Rural Delivery Vehicle, which could deliver mail along 28,000 routes across the country within the next decade.
“Given its potential benefits, it is worthwhile for the Postal Service to continue experimenting with AV (autonomous vehicle) technology, especially in its last-mile delivery and transportation activities,” the report reads, in part. “With the Postal Service already embarking on a multi-year replacement of its vehicle fleet, now may be the right time to lay the building blocks for the future use of AVs in postal operations.”
In a potential self-driving postal truck scenario, a human postal worker would sit behind the wheel of the truck, but would sort mail and perform other duties as the semi-autonomous vehicle drives itself along the route. Rural areas are being looked at for the experiment first because of the lesser potential for accidents due to fewer pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
One idea floated by USPS’s vehicle engineers is to affix barcodes to mailbox poles on rural routes that would be immediately identifiable by the self-driving postal truck’s cameras, allowing the vehicle to stop at precisely the right spot in front of the mailbox, plus alert the carrier to any packages going to that address.
Researchers at the University of Michigan are expected to deliver their first semi-autonomous delivery truck prototype this December, with 10 pilot prototypes debuting on rural routes in 2019.
If all goes according to plan, the rural test run could lead to full national rural areas deployment between 2022 and 2025.
USPS said it eventually plans to explore city delivery, and eventually remove steering wheels and pedals altogether.
The Postal Service is about to begin a wholesale replacement of its old fleet of vehicles with newer, but still non-automated, models over the course of seven years, beginning in 2019. Under the terms of its contracts with manufacturers, USPS says it could mandate the addition of autonomous components at any time, with one year’s notice.
Therefore, if automated vehicle test pilots are successful, USPS would be able to change course within the context of its existing purchase contract and rework it to add self-driving vehicles, according to the OIG report.
The Inspector General’s office said it anticipates that self-driving technology will add only $7,000 to $10,000 to the purchase price of a USPS vehicle in 2025 and only $3,000 by 2035, while saving millions of dollars a year in fuel costs due to greater efficiencies.