The Challenges of an Electric-Vehicle Revolution
The United States Postal Service could lead by example with its new fleet of delivery trucks. What’s standing in the way?
Judging by the ads during last weekend’s Super Bowl, electric vehicles are poised to imminently dislodge gasoline-powered cars and trucks from their privileged place on America’s roadways.
An escalating dispute among President Joe Biden’s administration, congressional Democrats, and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over modernizing the Postal Service’s vehicle fleet shows why the transition may not come quite that quickly. As soon as next week, the Postal Service may place the first order in a multibillion-dollar contract meant to ensure that it relies mostly on gas-powered vehicles until the middle of this century.
The Postal Service’s decision underscores how the transition to an electric-vehicle, or EV, future still faces powerful headwinds from inertia, the lure of the familiar, technological questions about the electric alternatives, and ideological resistance to disconnecting from fossil fuels. Though Democrats still hope to reverse the decision, the struggle with the Postal Service suggests that there are still many bumps ahead on the road to an electrified future for the nation’s cars and trucks.
Even with those obstacles looming, the car-company advertising during the game last weekend may stand as a legitimate cultural tipping point. All but one of the seven automotive ads that ran touted an electric vehicle. The night’s most memorable commercial reenacted the opening-credits sequence from The Sopranos (down to the pulsing title song) while the actor Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played Meadow Soprano, drove an EV Chevrolet Silverado truck.
The convoy of ads reflected the unmistakable signs of momentum for the EV transition: rising sales; the genuine breakthrough of Tesla’s latest sedan and SUV as mass-market hits; pledges from Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers to invest billions in electric alternatives; new options moving into production (such as Ford’s electric version of its popular F-150 truck). Last week, the Transportation Department unveiled more details of how it will distribute the $7.5 billion Biden won in the bipartisan infrastructure bill to fund a nationwide network of charging stations.
But although EVs constituted nearly one-fifth of all light-vehicle sales last year in Europe, and almost one-sixth in China, in the United States they represented just one in 25, and Tesla alone accounted for a clear majority of that, according to data released this week by the technology-industry market-analysis firm Canalys. Chris Jones, the firm’s chief analyst, told me the American companies “need to rapidly expand” the breadth of their offerings. The electric Silverado that Meadow Soprano drove in the kinetic Sopranos ad, for instance, won’t be delivered until summer 2024, according to Chevrolet’s website.
The companies point to supply shortages of crucial components (including EV batteries and semiconductors). But Dan Becker, the director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, told me the bigger problem is the companies’ reluctance to abandon gas-powered vehicles, especially light trucks, which mint profits for them.
“All of the companies are struggling with their desire to continue making the gas-guzzling behemoths on which they know how to make money and to avoid having to make the electric vehicles, which they know are the future,” Becker said.
The battle over modernizing the Postal Service fleet encapsulates many of these tensions between holding on to the familiar and leaping into the new.
All sides of the debate agree that the Postal Service needs to replace its existing neighborhood-delivery vehicles, which first went into service during the 1980s. Representative Gerry Connolly—who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, which oversees the Postal Service—told me these delivery vehicles are now on average 30 years old. “Imagine if your automobile was 30 years old: What could go wrong with that?” he said. “They are gas-guzzling; they are inefficient; they break down and require a lot of maintenance. It is very expensive to maintain this very aged fleet.”
On paper, the postal-delivery fleet would seem an ideal candidate for an EV makeover. Neighborhood postal-delivery vehicles travel the same route every day, usually navigating modest distances: The USPS has calculated that 84 percent of its vehicles cover less than 32 miles a day, far less than the battery range of electrified delivery vans already on the road. The post office’s vehicles end each day back in the same centralized depots, which offer ideal spots to install charging facilities, and vehicles could recharge overnight, when utility rates are lower. “This is the absolute perfect fleet for electrification,” Patricio Portillo, a senior advocate in the climate-and-clean-energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me.
But none of that has persuaded DeJoy, the controversial Donald Trump fundraiser whom the Postal Service’s board of governors elected as postmaster general in 2020. He argues that EVs are too expensive and too limited in their range, and would require too much new charging infrastructure. DeJoy has approved a plan that will spend more than $11 billion to buy up to 165,000 new delivery trucks over the next decade from Oshkosh Defense, a Wisconsin-based company. Under his current plan, gas-powered vehicles will account for 90 percent of the new purchases and EVs just 10 percent. In remarks earlier this month to the board of governors, DeJoy insisted that although he’s committed to “operating a cleaner Postal vehicle fleet for our country,” he could not afford to rely any more heavily on electric vehicles. “We will be resolute in making decisions that are grounded in our financial situation and what we can realistically achieve,” he declared. The Postal Service is expected to place its first order under the contract next week or in early March.
DeJoy’s decision has placed him on a collision course with both the White House and congressional Democrats. The Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality fired off detailed letters earlier this month arguing that the Postal Service overstated the expense of EVs and understated the operating and environmental costs of the gasoline-powered vehicles in the environmental-impact statement it used to justify the purchase. Not only is the post office minimizing the shift toward EVs, the EPA noted in its letter, but the gasoline-powered delivery trucks it picked will travel only 8.6 miles per gallon, a negligible increase from the current 8.2.
In the letter to the Postal Service, Vicki Arroyo, the EPA’s associate administrator for policy, could barely contain her outrage. “The Postal Service’s proposal as currently crafted represents a crucial lost opportunity to more rapidly reduce the carbon footprint of one of the largest government fleets in the world,” she wrote. “This action will lock in highly polluting vehicles for at least 30 more years (beyond 2050) and is inconsistent with national, and many state and local goals for [greenhouse-gas] emissions reductions.”
The House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, the group, known as the “House Green Dogs,” that Connolly co-chairs, was equally apoplectic in a letter it sent this month to DeJoy. “It is a willful decision by DeJoy to stick with a technology that is on the road to obsolescence,” Connolly told me. “Twenty years from now we’ll have a fleet that will be dinosaur-like. No one else is going to have a fleet like that.” The EPA underlined that point in its own letter, noting that the Postal Service’s major competitors—including Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and Walmart—have already placed large orders for electric vehicles and announced commitments to shift to fully electrified fleets in the time frame when DeJoy still envisions relying mostly on gasoline-powered delivery trucks to tote the mail.
The Postal Service plan also flouts the executive order Biden signed last December committing the federal government to purchasing exclusively EVs for new light-duty cars and trucks by 2027 and for all vehicles by 2035. The president’s problem is that he can’t simply order the Postal Service, which operates as an independent agency, to comply. Nor can he fire DeJoy (as much as many Democrats want him to). Only the board of governors can dismiss him, and although Biden appointees should soon constitute a majority of the board, several close observers I spoke with doubt that enough governors would vote to remove him even then. Asked about the Biden-administration objections to the vehicle plan, Kim Frum, a USPS spokesperson, said merely that the agency “is currently considering comments from EPA and other government officials.”
Congress might have had the most leverage over DeJoy, yet Democrats made a crucial decision to holster their best possible weapon. While DeJoy is stiffing Democrats on their push to electrify the postal fleet, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate are advancing legislation the Postal Service has long sought to stabilize its finances by changing the way it funds health benefits for retirees. That will improve the Postal Service’s bottom line over just the next decade by almost $50 billion, far more than the cost of the vehicle-modernization plan. (The reform package has passed the House, and is expected to eventually clear the Senate, where it’s been delayed by objections from Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida.)
But congressional Democrats say they chose early on not to link the two issues because they wanted GOP support for the financial plan, and Republicans made clear they would bolt if it included any mandate for electrification. “It was a fragile coalition to get the postal-reform bill, and that was deemed not the right venue or time,” Connolly told me. Instead, House Democrats provided the Postal Service about $7 billion in their Build Back Better bill to buy EVs and create charging infrastructure. But the decision by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to block the overall BBB package has closed off that route too.
Lawsuits from environmental groups challenging the analysis DeJoy used to justify the decision might slow down his plan. And some critics take comfort in the fact that even if DeJoy places an initial order primarily for gas-powered vehicles, the Postal Service could still shift the mix in subsequent orders if Congress can pass legislation requiring it or if DeJoy is replaced. But neither of those possibilities is guaranteed, especially in the near term. Which leaves Biden, congressional Democrats, and environmentalists frustrated by the Postal Service in much the same position as Meadow Soprano with her electrified Chevy truck: contemplating a very alluring EV alternative that probably will not arrive for years.