Who's Afraid of Autonomous Mail Trucks?
Highly automated vehicles (HAVs) have gone from fantasy to reality in the past decade. It is remarkable to witness the various prototypes motoring about courses and taking test drives on America’s roads. Already, related technology helps people parallel park their cars — some don’t even require the driver be in the car. Among other benefits, HAV technology has the potential to save lives and reduce insurance costs by greatly decreasing human errors, which cause 94 percent of accidents. Computers, note two keen observers, don’t get drunk or drowsy. Nor do they experience road rage.
But one especially interesting — and relatively unremarked upon — development is the application of HAV to the mail and delivery industry. Nearly all mail and packages are delivered by trucks, which log millions of miles on the roads each year, moving mail from airports to mail sorting facilities, and then on to post offices and homes. The numbers are staggering: Combined, USPS, UPS, and FedEx have nearly half a million delivery vehicles on the road. And that doesn’t take into account the fleets of other companies, like DHL and LaserShip.
Yet, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of HAV trucks. The Wall Street Journal reports that teamsters have told UPS they will not stand for automated trucks. And various critics fret America’s roads are too tricky for HAVs to ever be able to navigate safely. Sadly, these various interests have the ear of Congress, which may stall the spread of HAV technology.
History shows how myopic and futile all this naysaying is. Technological change has been disrupting mail and parcel delivery since the earliest days of our republic — and making service faster and more dependable.
When Benjamin Franklin ran the U.S. Post Office (1775–1776), human hands received the mail, sorted it, and handed it off to carriers who would move it on horseback or stagecoach to a post office, often located in a tavern or general goods store. Anyone who thought they might have a delivery then schlepped to the post office, making untold trips because one never knew when a package would arrive. It was a terribly inefficient system.
In the early 1800s, steamboats changed delivery logistics. Water-based delivery appeared to be the future, and the nation went on a canal-building binge for a century. Boats could carry goods from Albany to Lake Erie and from there southward through Ohio to Portsmouth and the Ohio River.
Delivery by boat portended the demise of the delivery horse, whose last day in the sun came in the form of the Pony Express. This private delivery service moved mail from Missouri to California in 10 days — a blazing speed in 1860. But it flamed out in less than two years, rendered obsolete by telegraphs and the transcontinental railroad.
In 1897, the Post Office did something radical: It began moving letters via pneumatic tubes. The experiment began in Philadelphia and spread to a handful of other cities, where big capsules of letters would hurtle underground from one post office to another.
Nifty as tubes were, trucks proved to be the delivery medium of the future. Low cost and incredibly flexible, trucks could follow whatever new road was laid, as Americans built their homes out of the reach of railroads and pneumatic tubes. The Post Office and private couriers, like UPS and FedEx, took to trucks quickly, and other modes of mail transportation largely faded into bit roles. (See bicycle couriers.)
Now, both the Postal Service and the private sector delivery companies think HAVs have a role to play in moving mail and packages. So why not allow them to try? Of course, for workers who are displaced, the transition won’t necessarily be easy. But our efforts would be better spent helping those small minority of workers’ transition more smoothly, rather than stalling the implementation of technology that could improve our mail and courier services, while saving lives on the road.
For nearly 250 years, technology has repeatedly transformed how Americans get mail and packages. At each step we’ve found new ways to combine human ingenuity and human labor to improve results. Thanks to automation, optical character recognition, and other technological marvels, today we can hand off a letter or a parcel on our doorsteps, and then track its progress across the nation. A text or email will alert us to explain who received the package and at exactly what time. Ben Franklin would be thrilled, and we venture to say he would also be intrigued at the prospect of HAV delivery.
Kevin Kosar is the vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and has worked on postal issues for 15 years. Caleb Watney leads the R Street Institute’s research on HAV vehicles.