The Postal Service is working toward autonomous mail delivery

In the future these trucks may drive themselves. (Tony Webster / Flickr)

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Self-driving vehicles could be a big boon for the U.S.Postal Service, the agency’s inspector general suggests in a recent report.

The paper, released in early October, looks at how autonomous trucks, cars and vans could be used within USPS as such vehicles become widely available. The IG envisions five core ways in which self-driving vehicles could help with mail delivery.

In one scenario, an autonomous postal truck would drive the route itself, leaving the postal worker on hand free to sort mail or carry out other administrative tasks. Once the truck arrives at the address, the mail carrier would hop out and complete the delivery.

The Postal Service is actually already working toward this vision — the agency has partnered with the University of Michigan to build a prototype it hopes to pilot on 10 rural routes in 2019. Rural routes are a good place to start because the roads are less congested, the Postal Service figures.

“If tests are successful, the Postal Service hopes to deploy the vehicle on 28,000 rural routes by 2025 and eventually explore other delivery applications,” the IG report states.

Other potential delivery use cases for autonomous trucks include one where the vehicle would park itself (good for congested city routes), one where the autonomous vehicle would follow the carrier (good for routes with a lot of heavy mail), and one where the vehicle essentially serves as a mobile postal locker and customers retrieve their mail themselves.

The report also references how autonomous vehicles could help the Postal Service with long distance trucking needs.

Why the interest in autonomous vehicles? The IG report suggests a host of benefits that could accompany the self-driving future, including savings (germane because of the agency’s $5.6 billion loss in 2016), increased safety and labor productivity.

Another section discusses how self-driving cars could boost the USPS brand. “Testing and using AVs would be a highly visible way for the Postal Service to demonstrate an interest in innovative technologies in its core business and be viewed as an innovative company,” the report states.

Above all, though, the report acknowledges that USPS must keep on top of new technologies in order to remain competitive.

“It seems clear that this is where the future of transportation is headed,” the report concludes. “The pace of innovation suggests that we can expect highly-autonomous vehicles to be available within 10 years. In order to be prepared, it will be important for the Postal Service to stay informed and continue to explore the technology, while thinking strategically about how to use AVs to strengthen its position in the delivery market.”

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autonomous vehicles, United States Postal Service