As the USPS Awaits Relief, It’s Testing Autonomous Trucks

It cites laws—not Amazon—for its financial woes

The cash-strapped USPS is testing self-driving trucks for potential savings. Tusimple
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

The beleaguered U.S. Postal Service said it will test autonomous 18-wheelers from TuSimple in a two-week pilot between distribution centers in Phoenix and Dallas.

The trial will include five 2000-mile, 22-hour roundtrips in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. According to TuSimple, the freight that moves along the I-10 corridor—a 2500-mile route from Jacksonville, Fla. to Santa Monica, Calif.—accounts for 60 percent of the economic activity in the U.S., so TuSimple expects this to be a central route moving forward. And, like many trials of this nature, a driver and safety engineer will be aboard the self-driving 18-wheeler to monitor performance and ensure public safety.

In a statement, the USPS said it’s conducting the test to find “a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology to accommodate a diverse mail mix, enhance safety, improve service, reduce emissions and produce operational savings.” The rep also noted the USPS receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations, but did not comment further.

TuSimple pointed to a reduction in fuel costs, enhanced safety and improvement in “fleet utilization rate” thanks to longer hours of operation. (And, like retailers assuring employees they won’t lose jobs, but who will rather be freed up to focus on the customer experience, TuSimple says its “driverless operations … [are] intended to free human drivers to focus on the shorter, more dynamic and closer to home routes.”)

According to the self-driving truck company, this 22-hour route in particular is ideal for self-driving trucks because they typically require two drivers. It also notes its trucks have a 1000-meter vision range, which means they can see more and react faster than humans, too.

“Performing for the USPS on this pilot in this particular commercial corridor gives us specific use cases to help us validate our system and expedite the technological development and commercialization progress,” said Xiaodi Hou, president and chief technology officer of TuSimple.

Donald Trump has long blamed Amazon for the woes of the United States Postal Service (USPS) and has called on the government agency to charge the ecommerce platform more for shipping to compensate for billions in annual losses he attributes to Amazon. In 2018 in particular, the USPS lost $3.9 billion and saw volume drop by 3.2 billion packages.

In testimony on the financial condition of the USPS before Congress on April 30, however, postmaster general and CEO Megan Brennan said the agency has streamlined operations, restructured its network, reduced its workforce and improved productivity to compensate for the drop in mail volume, but “no set of management actions is sufficient to offset the continuing decline in the use of mail.” Without legislative and regulatory reform, the USPS will likely run out of cash in 2024.

Brennan did not mention Amazon specifically, but cited “increased competition” and “the constraints imposed [on the USPS] by law,” such as having to maintain “an extensive network necessary to fulfill our universal service obligation to deliver the mail six days a week, regardless of volume,” as well as the addition of more than a million U.S. delivery points each year.

“We are delivering less mail to more addresses—which means there is less revenue to pay for mandated costs,” she said.


@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.
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