The U.S. Postal Service has ordered a special delivery for itself.
The agency is looking to replace its aging fleet of very aptly named Long Life Vehicles (LLVs) — the iconic, boxy mail trucks with the sloped hoods that have been pulling up in front of American homes since 1987 — with an all-new vehicle.
LLVs, built by Grumman through 1994, feature a custom aluminum body atop a Chevrolet truck chassis, with a four-cylinder engine and three-speed automatic transmission -- all very out of date. They’ve become leaky and expensive to maintain over the years, and their fuel economy, emissions, safety equipment and refinement pale in comparison to most vehicles on the road today.
So the USPS has started the process of finding its Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV), of which 180,000 will be purchased over a 5-7 year period starting in 2018. Potential suppliers have until June to submit their proposals; a USPS spokeswoman said several took part in a confidential informational session on Feb. 18.
While the NGDV will likely be based again on a production vehicle in order to meet its target of $25,000 to $35,000 per truck, several specifications laid out for it ensure that extensive modification will be required. These include an aluminum or composite body; right-hand-drive; an all-wheel-drive option; and a payload of 1,500 pounds with a cargo capacity of 155 cubic feet, both greater than the LLV, reflecting the continuing shift from letter to package delivery that the USPS has seen in recent years.
There will also be two sliding doors on the side of the truck — one for the driver and one for the cargo area. This was a special request from the National Association of Letter Carriers, which gave the USPS several suggestions for the design. The union’s director of city delivery, Brian Renfroe, says this is a safety feature that will allow carriers to work curbside more often. Several carriers have suffered catastrophic and even fatal injuries when their LLVs were hit from behind while they were unloading from the rear.
As is typically the case with government acquisition programs, the USPS prefers an American-made vehicle. One strong candidate for a donor platform is the new Ford Transit van, which is produced and sold worldwide, but built for the U.S. market in Kansas City. It features a large platform that can accommodate rear, front and all-wheel-drivetrains and right hand drive, and is significantly more fuel efficient than the older E-Series van. A Ford trucks spokesman would not say if the company plans to bid on the USPS contract, but did say it offers “commercial-grade solutions that can be tailored to meet a wide variety of business or fleet needs.”
Freightliner makes a similar van, the Sprinter, that’s assembled in North Carolina and has all-wheel-drive (It’s also sold as a Mercedes-Benz.) Currently available only with a diesel engine, it has with a starting price of around $35,000 before any modifications, which is about $5,000 more than the Transit.
A Freightliner representative would not comment on the NGDV program. Freightliner and Ford have both supplied the USPS with trucks larger than the LLV in the past.
The Mexican-made Ram Promaster is another European-style van that recently went on sale in the United States. A rebranded Fiat Ducato, it’s only available with front-wheel-drive, but it could potentially be updated to all-wheel-drive and it comes in a variety of configurations. Conventional Ducatos are currently used by the Italian postal service. A Fiat Chrysler spokesman said the company is aware of the NGDV acquisition program but would not say if it plans to submit a bid.
General Motors, however, is definitely interested in keeping a foot in the mail delivery business. A GM fleet spokesman said “the U.S Postal Service is an important customer and we are early in the process of exploring potential solutions that would work for their needs.” Although GM doesn’t have one of the new style vans in its U.S. fleet, it does have a number of van and truck chassis that could serve as the basis for an NGDV.
As for what proposals might look like, we could get a preview as soon as July, when the USPS will pick its finalists for the $4.5 to $6.3 billion contract. The companies will need to provide prototypes for testing by next February, and a winner is scheduled to be named in January 2017.
As for the LLV, it won’t be forgotten. The first one produced is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, where it should remain for a long time to come.
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.