By USAF Gen. Duncan McNabb (ret.) and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (R)
In July 1899, the United States Postal Service put into service its first electric-powered mail wagon in Buffalo, New York. Though the USPS has continued testing electric vehicles (EVs) since that day 116 years ago, there has never been more than a handful of EVs in the fleet. Today, as the service looks to replace its iconic but inefficient delivery trucks and satisfy the Obama administration’s recent call for federal fleets to reduce their emissions by 30 percent, there is a compelling case for a next-generation fleet powered by alternative fuels like electricity. That case starts with tackling America’s extreme dependence on oil.
The United States is nearly as dependent on oil for its transportation as it was in 1973, days before the Arab Oil Embargo upended the global economy and created the historic image of the “gas line,” thousands of worried motorists who waited—sometimes for hours—for a few drops of fuel.
Using electricity to power a fleet can boost its efficiency.
We learned many lessons in the aftermath of the embargo, but today, 92 percent of the U.S. transportation sector remains powered by oil. When the price of oil spikes, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s, and in 2008, it can shave entire points off U.S. GDP. Wild swings in fuel prices are impossible to plan for and can send shockwaves through the economy. For the Postal Service, one of the largest fleets in the world, a sudden jump in the cost of gasoline can be brutal.
But unlike much of the last century, there are proven, cost-effective technologies available today that displace oil from the transportation sector, not only insulating our economy from the debilitating impact of oil price spikes, but also enhancing our national security.
One of us was responsible for 150,000 military and civilian personnel in the U.S. Transportation Command, the transportation and worldwide distribution backbone of our country’s military. The other leads the city of Indianapolis, coordinating the services essential to a functioning, prosperous metropolitan area of 800,000. Both jobs require intimate knowledge of how efficiently our workforces can get things done. As former members of the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps, we both seek to operate with military precision and waste nothing.
Using electricity to power a fleet can boost its efficiency. The lower fuel and maintenance costs that come with electric vehicles make a natural fit for the Postal Service, which works in many ways like municipal and business fleets.
Last year, Indianapolis launched its “Freedom Fleet,” replacing 525 gas-powered administrative sedans with 425 all-electric or hybrid-electric cars. The program, the first of its kind nationwide, will save the city $8.7 million over 10 years, avoiding 2.2 million gallons of gasoline. But savings aren’t just limited to cheaper fuel. By 2025, Indy’s fleet will be 100 percent petroleum-free.
The average electric passenger vehicle costs about 3 cents per mile to operate when calculating regular servicing and repairs, as well as fuel. In contrast, the same gasoline-powered vehicle costs around 10 cents per mile. Once past the higher up-front cost of EVs—mostly due to the high price of long-range batteries—the savings quickly begin to flow.
Industry giants FedEx and UPS are already upgrading their fleets to increase efficiency and reduce their dependence on oil. FedEx has hundreds of hybrid and all-electric vehicles delivering parcels to homes and businesses across the country. UPS trucks powered by alternative fuels have racked up hundreds of millions of miles. These vehicles boost the companies’ sustainability profiles while providing real fuel savings.
To avoid the steep up-front costs, Indianapolis chose a financing partner that allowed the city to take advantage of the lower total cost of EV ownership from the beginning. Because the city didn’t need to purchase the vehicles, it could balance the cost of the new cars against the significant savings of going electric over 10 years.
The Postal Service could explore similar options when refitting its massive fleet, with enormous benefits for American energy security. The ripple effects from transitioning just a part of its vehicle pool to alternative fuels would reverberate throughout the country, driving new technology development to end U.S. oil dependence and giving consumers more choice in the process.
We believe that reducing our reliance on oil in transportation is necessary for the long-term safety and prosperity of the United States. Like Indianapolis, the Postal Service has an opportunity to jumpstart this critical transition and generate serious savings at the same time. One hundred and sixteen years later, it’s time to give the electric vehicle another serious look.