(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘vehicles

“When transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a rejiggered caterpillar.”*…

Mail trucks, with mostly short and predictable routes, are naturals to lead the electrification revolution. But as Aaron Gordon explains, the USPS, as an institution, is not…

A year ago, the USPS announced it was buying between 50,000 and 165,000 new delivery trucks over the next decade from Oshkosh Defense, a defense contractor based in Wisconsin, as part of the long-awaited replacement of the current iconic mail trucks. The USPS provided few details about the vehicles, except to highlight key features like air conditioning, automatic emergency braking, and other safety technology, none of which the famous boxy neighborhood delivery vehicles have. The USPS also said the trucks would be a mix of both battery electric and internal combustion engine vehicles, but didn’t specify the ratio. 

At first, the new vehicles, whether gas or electric, were a hit. They’re rather cute for a truck, with a low front grill and huge windshield, giving it the unmistakable likeness of a duck. And your friendly neighborhood postal worker desperately needs them, since the USPS’s current fleet of trucks is 30 years old on average, far longer than the USPS expected them to run. It costs the USPS $5,000 per vehicle per year in maintenance alone to keep them running. And despite that exorbitant expense, it still can’t stop dozens of them from spontaneously combusting every year

But what began as mostly good-natured celebration over a cute, much-needed truck went downhill fast. It increasingly became clear the massive order was utterly unfit for the modern age. In a legally-mandated environmental review, the USPS revealed the gas version of the truck will get essentially the same miles per gallon with the air conditioning on as the current truck gets, or about 8 mpg, worse than the RAM ProMaster, which the USPS also uses, which gets roughly 14 mpg. It also revealed the truck’s weight was selected to be precisely one pound heavier than the “heavy duty truck” cutoff which frees it from various environmental regulations, including getting better gas mileage. And, most controversially of all, only 10 percent of the trucks will be electric, even though the USPS itself said in the environmental review that 95 percent of its routes are fit for EVs.

Why? Well, part of the reason is internal…

“The Postal Service made individual decisions that might have been rational,” said Michael Ravnitzky, chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2015, “but taken as a whole, they don’t seem explicable to the public because the public is judging it by today’s standards, rather than the standards of when [the postal service] started this, like 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.”…

Starting in the 1980s, the USPS had to pay its own bills, received no subsidies from Congress, had no mandate to consider environmental or social issues, and mostly heard from Congresspeople when they were getting complaints about their local post office reducing its hours but were nowhere to be found when it came time to discuss the $56 billion in made-up debt the agency had been saddled with. If politicians weren’t publicly rooting for the USPS to go away as an antiquated institution from a bygone era, they at least weren’t going to stick their necks out for it, because they could no longer see to it that a local political supporter got a job at the post office. For most politicians, the post office had become a non-entity in ways that both helped and hurt the postal service. The USPS was going alone and would have to make do with what it had.

And what it had, in the late 2000s, was some 142,000 decaying delivery trucks, most pushing 20 years old then, with no air conditioning or power steering, that didn’t comply with any environmental regulations because they had been built before such regulations existed, got terrible gas mileage, and needed replacement parts that manufacturers were no longer making. USPS engineers were taking the body from one truck and the parts from another to make a new one, stacking safety hazard upon safety hazard as it created more and more Frankentrucks. 

The engineering department knew it desperately needed new vehicles but that it wasn’t going to get them any time soon. So it became intimately familiar with the 142,000 of the ones it had. Internal combustion engines were what the engineering people knew. If a part broke, they knew how to get a new one, or how to fashion one together if new ones didn’t exist. The fact that they were able to stretch the useful life of these trucks beyond the planned 20 years and push 30 years or more has been considered by the engineering department as nothing short of heroic. 

For the people who “bleed blue,” as the saying in the USPS goes, electric vehicles may have been better in theory, but gas was better for the realities they faced. Because when Congress inevitably screws them again and makes them stretch the lives of the next trucks a decade or two longer than planned, they’ll need to duct tape and glue those trucks together, too. And they don’t know how to glue an EV back together…

And part of the reason goes to rules imposed by Congress. EV’s are more expensive upfront, but promise lower overall expenses (maintenance, fuel, etc.) overall; still…

After a 2006 law saddled the USPS with made-up debt to help balance the federal budget, the USPS acts as if it lacks the financial flexibility to make any mistakes, a fear that results in an organization so tepid and conservative it ends up making many of them…

The USPS, like many large government bureaucracies, have two different budgets: operating and capital expenses. The operating budget of some $80 billion a year is the one that goes towards delivering mail every day: paying people, fueling trucks, fixing trucks, running their equipment and facilities, and so on. The capital budget, which is just a couple billion dollars a year at most, is the one that pays for investing in upgrades to all that stuff: Buying new trucks, purchasing a new HVAC system for a post office, and the like. 

While any individual USPS employee easily understands that paying $5,000 a year to keep 30-year-old trucks running makes no sense, the USPS bureaucracy can’t. To buy new ones would be a capital cost, for which the USPS would have to borrow money, something it legally could not do for the last decade.

It had reached its Congressionally-mandated borrowing limit. If the USPS had been able to borrow more money, it would have had to give it to the federal government as part of the terms of that disastrous 2006 law, which mandated the USPS pay it $5.5 billion every year. The USPS did so, amassing some $18 billion in an account managed by the federal government, until 2011, when it stopped because it could no longer afford it. So while the USPS could continue to run up deficits in its operating budget, it couldn’t borrow any more money for capital expenses, the kind that saves an organization money in the long run…

Why the USPS bought expensive, environmentally-unfriendly mail trucks: “Who Killed the Electric Mail Truck?,” from @A_W_Gordon in @motherboard. Eminently worth reading in full.

* paraphrase of George Westerman

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s epoch-making tale of a man-made monster, Frankenstein, was published.  Shelley had begun writing the story two years earlier, when she was 18 and on vacation near Geneva with her soon-to-be husband (the poet Percy Shelley) and their friend Lord Byron.  The house party set itself the task of each writing a gothic story; only Mary finished hers.  The first edition was published anonymously; Shelley was first publicly identified as the author on the title page of the 1823 second edition.

The work has, as Brian Aldiss argues, a strong claim to being the first true science fiction novel.  As the sub-title– “The Modern Prometheus”– suggests (and like most great sci fi), it treats the philosophical, cultural, and psychological ramifications of scientific and technological progress.

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“The future is electric”…

One of the many Fritchle electric cars manufactured in the early 20th century

And also a thing of the past…

For a brief period in the early 20th century in the United States, the electric car was high society’s hottest commodity, sought after by socialites and businessmen alike…

During the early years of the “Automotive Age,”—from about 1896 to 1930—as many as 1,800 different car manufacturers functioned in the U.S. While innovators in Europe had been working on battery-powered vehicles since the 1830s, the first successful electric car in the U.S. made its debut in 1890 thanks to a chemist from Iowa. His six-passenger was basically an electrified wagon that hit a top speed of 14 mph.

By 1900, electric cars were so popular that New York City had a fleet of electric taxis, and electric cars accounted for a third of all vehicles on the road. People liked them because in many ways early electric cars outperformed their gas competitors. Electric cars didn’t have the smell, noise, or vibration found in steam or gasoline cars. They were easier to operate, lacked a manual crank to start, and didn’t require the same difficult-to-change gear system as gas cars.

Electric cars became extremely popular in cities, especially with upper-class women who disliked the noisy and smelly attributes of gasoline-powered cars. A New York Times article from 1911 reported, “The designers of electric passenger car-carrying vehicles have made great advances in the past few years, and these machines have retained all their early popularity and are steadily growing in favor with both men and women.”…

Like today, one of the challenges for early electric car owners was where to charge them. But by 1910 owners could install their own charging stations on their property, and an increasing number of car-repair shops popped up that allowed electric cars to charge overnight.

One of the most eccentric and interesting manufacturers of early electric cars was Oliver P. Fritchle, a chemist and electrical engineer who began as an auto repairman until he realized he could build a better electric car himself. Fritchle sold his first vehicle in 1906 and set up a production plant in Denver, Colorado, in 1908.

Fritchle made one of the best car batteries in the business, which he claimed could travel 100 miles on a single charge

An advertisement for a Fritchle electric car. Via American-Automobiles.com

What’s old is new again: “Before Tesla: Why everyone wanted an electric car in 1905,” from Megan Barber (@megcbarber) in @Curbed.

J. P. Morgan

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As we recharge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that the U.S. Federal government standardized the size of license plates throughout the U.S. Originally, owners had been responsible for their own tags; then individual states had designed– and dimensioned– license plates, resulting in wide variations.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 5, 2021 at 1:00 am

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