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Driverless Cars Go Postal

By: Ryan Gallagher October 25, 2017
The U.S. Postal Service is testing autonomous mail trucks for rural routes.

Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is coming to the United States Postal Service (USPS), according to a Wired report

USPS is teaming up with the University of Michigan to test new automated mail trucks. By 2025, USPS plans to launch the Autonomous Rural Delivery Vehicle (ARDV) on 28,000 rural routes nationwide.

“Given its potential benefits, it is worthwhile for the Postal Service to continue experimenting with [AV] technology, especially in its last-mile delivery and transportation activities,” reads a USPS report. “With the Postal Service already embarking on a multi-year replacement of its vehicle fleet, now may be the right time to lay the building blocks for the future use of AVs in postal operations.”

The University of Michigan plans to produce the first ARDV prototype by December 2017, with 10 pilot prototypes debuting on rural routes in 2019.

Testing will begin at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor-based MCity autonomous vehicle research center. Engineers plan to bring the ARDV prototypes to rural routes exclusively, in hopes that the AVs will be more effective in environments without highways or heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic. 

Don’t say goodbye to your friendly neighborhood mailperson just yet. These vehicles will be designated autonomy level 3, or semi-autonomous—still requiring drivers to stay behind the wheel, ready to take control at any moment. The new AVs would not take over a mail carrier’s job, but would allow the mailperson to sort and deliver mail without parking the vehicle. The ARDV technology could provide a “small but cumulatively significant time savings.” 

Before hitting rural roads, each truck will be outfitted with light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors, allowing the vehicle to “see” and “learn” everyday mail routes, according to the USPS report.

The project is expected to add “only $7,000 to $10,000 to the purchase price of a USPS vehicle in 2025 and only $3,000 by 2035,” according to numbers compiled by the U.S. Inspector General.

Application of new AVs “could increase the safety and convenience of carriers and drivers, save fuel, increase productivity, and promote the Postal Service as an innovative brand,” the report concluded.

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