Mahindra is one of five companies competing for a massive contract from the U.S. Postal Service to replace its aging fleet of delivery vehicles with 180,000 new-and-improved mail trucks. The Indian automaker may have something else up its sleeve for the project, as well: an autonomous mail truck.
Mahindra’s name appears in one of the 15 applications submitted last year to Michigan regulators for what’s known as a Manufacturer License Plate, according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and published on Muckrock, a news site that helps users file and collate public records request.
The license allows companies to test and operate “automated vehicles” on public roads in the state, according to a summary of the 2013 law that authorized the tests. Self-driving tech developers like Google’s autonomous car unit, Waymo, and Uber both submitted for such licenses last year, the records show.
In Mahindra’s filing, dated Aug. 2, 2017, the company checks off a box to verify it’s seeking a vehicle manufacturer plate for an automated vehicle.
In a separate line to describe the make of the vehicle, Mahinda discloses it’s “prototype delivery vehicles/USPS,” suggesting it may have more than one prototype planned for automated driving tests.
Whether a USPS delivery vehicle prototype with some automated driving functions is a part of Mahindra’s bid to the U.S. Postal Service isn’t clear. It also wasn’t immediately known how often Mahindra is testing automated mail delivery trucks in Michigan, if at all. Both the automaker and the USPS were tight-lipped, when reached by Jalopnik on Wednesday.
“Per the request of the USPS, we cannot comment on any aspect of the program,” said Rich Ansell, vice president of marketing for Mahindra Automotive of North America, in an email.
Kim Frum, a spokesperson for the Postal Service, told Jalopnik: “We don’t have any information we can provide on your inquiry, and we cannot comment about any companies we may be working with, nor any other details.”
But the intent behind submitting an application for a manufacturer license in the state is obvious.
“Public Act 231 allows for vehicles equipped with automated technology to be driven on public roads if they display a ‘Manufacturer’ license plate,” the summary of the 2013 Michigan law said. “The use and eligibility of the Manufacturer license plate for automated vehicles is detailed in this public act.”
The law itself defines the operation of an automated vehicle in the state as “Causing an automated motor vehicle to move under its own power in automatic mode upon a highway or street regardless of whether the person is physically present in that automated motor vehicle at that time.”
The USPS made it known last year that it wants to develop self-driving mail trucks, having disclosed that it’d partnered with the University of Michigan to build an Autonomous Rural Delivery Vehicle to launch on 28,000 rural routes as early as 2025.
It’s unclear if Mahindra is linked specifically to that effort, but the report goes on to say that the planned prototype won’t be fully-autonomous, meaning the driver would still be required to intervene if necessary. The report highlights a number of ways on how the vehicle could be utilized:
The carrier would sit behind the wheel, sort mail on the move, and deliver through the window while the vehicle drives, thereby achieving small but cumulatively significant time savings. As currently envisioned, the prototype is only partially autonomous, meaning the driver must be ready to assume control at all times.
The project is split up into two phases, according to the report, which said that after a prototype is delivered in December 2017, “the plan is to bring in union representatives to discuss some of the human/machine interaction issues and craft employee training guidelines.”
Thereafter, the post office planned to seek out a company to manufacture an autonomous mail ruck, and begin piloting them on 10 rural routes in 2019.
Autonomous mail truck testing aside, Mahindra stands to reap a serious windfall if it secures the contract for the Postal Service’s so-called “Next Generation Delivery Vehicles.”
The agency intends to issue a single award for 180,000 new vehicles that each will cost between $25,000 and $35,000, Bloomberg reported last month, for an estimated total revenue take of between $4.5 billion and $6.3 billion. A decision is expected by the end of the year, according to the news outlet.