Object of the Week

After a Brutal Year, the Post Office’s Sexy New Truck Is Selling Us a Story

The new fleet of electric vehicles paints a brighter future where the post office actually still exists

Object of the Week is a column exploring the objects a culture obsesses over and what that reveals about us.

It’s been a rough year — well, a rough decade or two — for the U.S. Postal Service. So it’s notable that in addition to enduring another round of criticism for subpar delivery performance this week, the venerable government agency also made news that struck a potentially positive note: It has awarded the contract for up to 165,000 new and redesigned delivery vehicles, some of which will run on electric power. For the first time in a long time, the USPS is directing our attention toward good news about its future.

According to The Verge, this is the culmination of an effort dating back to 2015 — an “urgent” undertaking to replace an aging fleet of trucks that, incredibly, lack air conditioning. (Some have been in service for 30 years.) In announcing the contract, the USPS unveiled the winning design and its features, along with a timetable pledging that the vehicles will begin to go into service in 2023. This puts the new fleet in a special category of object: the kind that looks and sounds promising but doesn’t (yet) actually exist.

The new postal truck is (presumably) real, but the renderings the agency released have that optimistic air of a designer’s vision of a better future en route.

In a way, even that is a pretty exciting turn of events for the post office, because the hyping of nonexistent objects is usually the province of forward-thinking tech hardware makers. In extreme cases — Apple being the most notable example — even third parties create images of nonexistent, speculative “concept” products that might arrive someday. The new postal truck is (presumably) real, but the renderings the agency released have that optimistic air of a designer’s vision of a better future en route.

Certainly the announcement of electric power-train vehicles is the most progressive and attention-grabbing feature. There will also be some traditional gas-powered vehicles — the exact split isn’t clear, but the plan is that even the combustion-engine vehicles can be retrofitted with electric power trains in the future. But the new trucks have a crisp look, with sharp angles that give it a distinct silhouette — a little militaristic and a little Jetsons, like something designed for tooling around the moon. Meanwhile, the graphic treatment (featuring the iconic USPS logo and color scheme) happily remains its familiar and comfortable self.

On a practical level, there’s a larger cargo area, big enough to stand in and equipped with folding shelves, accommodating more packages. It also has some souped-up safety features, like a 360-degree camera and bumper sensors — plus, if you can believe it, air conditioning.

The contract with Oshkosh, a defense contractor based in Wisconsin (the vehicles will be made in the United States) stretches 10 years, so it may be a while before you encounter one of these on your block. And despite USPS leadership’s rhetoric, it seems like a long shot that this is evidence that the Postal Service will be able to not only compete with FedEx, UPS, and Amazon, but also morph into a profitable business — a chimerical idea that ought to be retired.

But the trucks will definitely be noticeable — the most visible signal we’ve seen in years that the post office is keeping up with the times. Assuming, of course, the manufacturing timeline pans out. As The Verge noted, this transition to an updated fleet is already years late, originally slated for 2018. Bidders have been prototyping since 2016, and some elements of the design aren’t final.

Still, the function of the nonexistent planned future object is to tell a story, and in this case the new truck is a narrative vehicle that converts the post office from politically demonized money-loser to ambitious and future-focused servant of the American public. And it’s not just a promise of a particular future; it’s a promise that the agency behind this object has a future at all. Now all that’s left to do is deliver.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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