The United States Postal Service, beloved for its adorable dog costumes, beautifully designed stamps, and being an American tradition, is redesigning its iconic mail delivery trucks.
The new truck, which will come to a neighborhood near you starting in 2023, will be designed and manufactured by Oshkosh Defense, a tactical vehicle manufacturer. The proportions of the new design, which has a slim, low-to-the ground front hood and super-tall carriage and front window, has caused some critics to note that it looks a bit cartoonish (either Pixar or Big Mouth, take your pick). Those kinds of comparisons don’t exactly read “sophisticated.” But initial reactions aside, experts say there shouldn’t really be a controversy.
Postal workers need dependability and reliability from their vehicles first and foremost. The truck, or as USPS calls it, the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV), has a tall, boxy shape with rounded edges, a low front hood and chassis, and an extra-large front window—what you might call the truck’s forehead. The vehicle will have new features like 360-degree cameras, more braking and traction control, and a collision avoidance system that uses audio warnings and automatic braking. It also has more cargo capacity, which, the postal service says, will better handle higher package volumes due to our increasing reliance on e-commerce. In a statement, Oshkosh VP Tom Quigley noted that the car was built for reliability and easy maintenance, not necessarily for speed. (USPS and Oshkosh declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The chassis are flexible: They can work with both electric batteries or standard engines, which can be retrofitted later. The new fleet of between 50,000 and 165,00 vehicles will be a mix of both.
The tech features are great, but usability is the biggest factor in the updated design. First, the chassis: It appears to be a skateboard chassis that’s common in electric vehicles. Consider the users in this situation: Postal workers are in and out of their vehicles all day; a low chassis makes this much easier on them. That’s a great start, according to Nick Ross, a creative director at Teague, an agency that focuses on industrial, aviation, and automotive design.
The truck’s height is also a key feature. Though interior photos aren’t yet available, the height makes sense, according to Clint Rule, another creative director at Teague, who developed the Virgin Hyperloop, as it gives an average-size person room to stand up and move around inside. Meanwhile, the large windows help with visibility, which Ross deems a “huge step in the right direction.” (He adds that it could come at a literal price, as it’s expensive to replace windows.) Ross suggests that if visibility is truly a priority, the size of the headlights—which look disproportionately small—should be increased.
Ross and Rule say that where the truck fails is that it attempts to deliver on too much. The inward angle at the top of the truck’s back is a great functional detail, as it reduces the likelihood of the driver bumping their head when getting in. But those angles, and the tension of the rigid sheet metal on the vehicle’s sides, are at odds with the vehicle’s curves, according to Ross. He and Rule are curious what the truck would look like if the front hood were removed altogether, like UPS’s electric vehicles. “What kind of personality would we get from a pug-nosed vehicle?” Rule asked. An adorable one, I’m guessing.
I asked the Teague designers what they made of the disproportionate—dare I say, dorky—look of the vehicle. “I wish it were dorkier,” Rule says. “The cues that don’t feel correct in the current design is that it is trying to be something not utilitarian.” Ross agrees, adding that the ingress and egress should be a priority for a vehicle like this, and he’d like to see it even closer to the ground, with a kneeling feature or a ramp, like the Hannah autonomous bus Teague designed.
Ultimately, Rule believes this new fleet’s biggest impact could be on commercial electric vehicles more broadly. “When it comes to commercial vehicles, they have this pathos of growling power and rugged dependability,” he says, noting that people don’t typically equate electric vehicles with those qualities. “[But] the mail truck is neighborhood-oriented, it’s service-oriented, it’s community-oriented, and it’s an icon of dependability. So there’s a huge opportunity in this particular commercial vehicle becoming electric, and that could help change mass perception of commercial [electric] vehicles. For me, it carries a lot of symbolic weight.”