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A Blue-Sky Idea For the USPS — Postal Trucks As Sensors 252

An anonymous reader writes "The US Postal Service may face insolvency by 2011 (it lost $8.5 billion last year). An op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times proposes an interesting business idea for the Postal Service: use postal trucks as a giant fleet of mobile sensor platforms. [Registration-required link; this no-reg summary encapsulates the idea, as does this paper by the same author.] (Think Google Streetview on steroids.) The trucks could be outfitted with a variety of sensors (security, environmental, RF ...) and paid for by businesses. The article's author addresses some of the obvious privacy concerns that arise."
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A Blue-Sky Idea For the USPS — Postal Trucks As Sensors

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  • by migla ( 1099771 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:24PM (#34610400)

    What are they gonna do? Dismantle the postal service? Just consider it infrastructure and pay for any loss from taxes. Surely the people of the US don't want to be without a postal service?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Privatize it. UPS didn't lose $8.5 billion, it made $2.15 billion in profit.

      • USPS already adopted the "run government like a business" philosophy.

        • by clarkkent09 ( 1104833 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:34PM (#34610504)

          That doesn't work because it's not their money. People run things far more efficiently when it's their money or their bosses money on the line, rather than "everybody's" (i.e nobody's) money.

          • by edumacator ( 910819 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @09:01PM (#34611462)

            Right. And then they would say, I'm not going to spend my money delivering to those people out in the country. The postal service has the responsibility to deliver to every region of the country. A private company doesn't have the same responsibility. We could make it a prerequisite for whoever wins the contract, but then they would raise the prices significantly.

            • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Monday December 20, 2010 @03:36AM (#34613466) Homepage

              Right. And then they would say, I'm not going to spend my money delivering to those people out in the country. The postal service has the responsibility to deliver to every region of the country. A private company doesn't have the same responsibility. We could make it a prerequisite for whoever wins the contract, but then they would raise the prices significantly.

              Which would then prove that the USPS is an effective organization, that has just been given an expensive mission then? Sure you can get a system that costs half what the USPS does but only does half too, seriously if private companies can't compete in an apples-to-apples bid to take over what's the point? What is wrong with the government negotiating a SLA on behalf of the people of what is to be delivered? These are our requirements. These are our penalties for failing to meet those requirements. Seriously, I've never understood the US on this, giving it all to one company then letting them have free reign is just to ask people to lube up and bend over. Most every such regulated industry here in Norway has strings attached, which is considered fair as long as all bidders compete under the same conditions.

          • by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @10:21PM (#34612010) Homepage

            Wake up. Do you want you post delivered as cheaply as possible or do you want you postal service to be a profitable as possible, you can not have both, profit you fool comes from gouging the consumers pocket.

            Government services attempt to provide as much service as possible whilst charging as little as possible, sometimes resulting losses. Corporations attempt to provide as little service as possible whilst charging as much as possible for it, often resulting in multimillion dollar bonuses for corporate executives. Competition is what corporation strive to cripple by forming cartel, buy buying out the opposition and then ramping up prices to pay for it, by lying to consumers, by lobbying for reduced worker rights, by not paying tax, by seeking corporate welfare from the local, state and federal government.

            So more efficient letter carriage, drop Saturday deliveries, drop pick up of mail from letter box have localised post boxes [], just those simply changes will substantively reduce cost. Of course it you really want to do what a for profit corporation would do, simply drop all postal services to rural areas unless they are willing to pay substantially more for the service.

            As for corporations as far as they are concerned your money is their money and they will and do lie, cheat and steal to 'er' recover it.

      • by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:46PM (#34610598)

        Hell no. America has an amazingly secure post system. You rarely have mail stolen (an enforced Federal Crime, USPS have Postal Inspectors that are very good at their job and I say this with personal experience). I know privatized systems in other countries -- THEY SUCK. Stolen packages, no accounting (everyone passes the buck, etc) while Postal workers are people THAT will most likely work there next year, with a good benefits, and do care if they lose their job or pension.

        Cut some service, close down some unnecessary offices (I know a few miles from each other) and do some other tweaks. But the PO is Constitutionally mandated service, and it's ridiculous to get rid of it when all it needs are tweaks.

        • by tyen ( 17399 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:51PM (#34610644) Journal

          You rarely have mail stolen...

          This should be emphasized. I visited a gold mine in the US once. Was astounded when they told us they mail their raw ingots (that contain gold, silver and platinum all mixed together) to their refiner by USPS. They matter-of-factly told us that only USPS had the kind of government-force-backed security and guarantees that made transporting around >$100K bars every day feasible.

        • Citation needed. From personal experience just in the last year, I've had my mail stolen once, I received other people's mail several times and I failed to receive some mail that I know was sent - probably delivered wrongly to god knows whom. Meanwhile, going to the post office is one of the most dreaded things for me because it ALWAYS means waiting in line for at least an hour and dealing with employees there who are understaffed, overwhelmed by the number of angry customers, demoralized and rude. I can't

          • I've had the opposite experience. The local USPS workers are pretty friendly, prompt on the job, and the only time they've misplaced my mail was a special scenario(to my business address; the new postal guy didn't know that my mailbox was no longer in use, long story). That said, I work from a small town where they wouldn't be overwhelmed easily. I'm guessing you're in a more metro area, and so I think it's understandable(though still a problem) that the workers would be demoralized or quicker to anger if t
          • I can't think of a private business that has the same problems.

            Sounds like Fry's to me.

            Just last week, I did not receive a DVD that I had ordered. Tracking info states that package has already been delivered. I called the post office at 4:45pm. By 6:00pm, they had sent someone personally to deliver my package. UPS or Fedex would have (and have in the past) just told me to haul my ass down to the distribution center 15 miles away to line up and pick it up.
          • I have to agree with the other posters; the USPS workers I've dealt with (and I've dealt with many, as I send a lot of international packages) are usually quite friendly, despite the angry and sometimes even insane customers they have to deal with. Yes, the lines can be long if you go during peak hours (usually lunch hour and after 5PM), but if you go during other hours it's not so bad. It also depends on the location. It's not the PO's fault the lines are long, the problem is that the general populace i

        • The post office nearest my house (14610) is used to capacity, perhaps even a bit understaffed relative to the lines.

      • by transami ( 202700 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @07:01PM (#34610742) Homepage

        The only reason they are loosing money is b/c Congress won't let them raise prices to what they need to be. Look at the USPS 2009 annual report, the first page brags about being the cheapest postal service in the world. So is it any wonder they are loosing money? If they raised the price of a stamp just 5 cents they'd be in the black again.

        No doubt, lobbyists from Fedex and UPS are paying off our politicians to sabotage the USPS. First they will get rid of Saturday delivery, which, contrary to the stated reasons for it, will actually further erode their bottom line. That will ultimately lead to full privatization. Shortly after that happens expect the cost of mailing a letter to quickly approach 10 times of what it costs today in order to pay massive executive bonuses and shareholder dividends.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Psychologists should be writing books about this kind of thinking, it really is something and it is so common as well. Let me rephrase what you just said so it's more clear: Government causes trouble, in this case by not allowing USPS to raise rates to a realistic level. Why is that so? Presumably out of some misguided altruistic motives, so that poor people can afford to send mail etc or at least because that way it appears that they care more about the poor and all that crap, but lets assume for a moment

          • The problem isn't government, the problem is the lack of policing, and the lack of penalties for bribery and corruption. Bribery is a way of life in the US government, except they call them "campaign contributions".

            In China, corruption is definitely a problem with their growth, but when they find it, the punishment is severe: a bullet in the brain. If we had punishments like that here for corruption or corporate malfeasance, there wouldn't be as much of it.

          • by Kjella ( 173770 )

            Aw, not more Ayn Rand nonsense. Those who have power manipulate those who don't, it can be like in China where the government manipulates corporations or in the US where corporations manipulate the government. Same with the branches of government where Congress is trying to tell the President what to do, the President is trying to tell Congress what to do and they both have their run-ins with the Judicial branch too. And they pretty much all try to manipulate the public, because the people are powerful but

        • by DavidTC ( 10147 )

          No, not five cents, damnit.

          They should raise postage rates to the next highest five cents, and then raise them again by five cents when those get too low.

          The idiotic 'raise them random amounts' is part of what's reducing the amount of stuff people mail. First class letters should always be a multiple of 5 cents, so you just throw another 5 cents on there if they raised the rate.

          Which means the next rate raise should be to 50 cents, because it's 44 cents right now.

          In fact, all rates should be a multiple

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        UPS isn't under the same universal service obligations as the USPS.

    • by Korin43 ( 881732 )

      Surely the people of the US don't want to be without a postal service?

      Is it really that big of a deal?

      • Junk mail - Finally we can get rid of this.
      • Post cards - Sad to lose, but not really the government's problem.
      • Letters - Important letters could still be sent by UPS/Fedex. It would be more expensive, but I suspect without the USPS, they would offer something comparable to normal mail (no doubt it would be more expensive). All of those businesses that send you pointless letters all the time (TV/internet service, banks, etc) would suddenly have a huge incentive to convince peopl
      • All of those businesses that send you pointless letters all the time (TV/internet service, banks, etc) would suddenly have a huge incentive to convince people to accept them in email form (less waste).

        It's a good thing that everyone has email access in their home.

        • by Korin43 ( 881732 )

          I didn't say they'd go away, I said businesses would have more incentive to get people with email access to use it.

    • Surely the people of the US don't want to be without a postal service?

      I could live without it. Nothing but crap in my mail box. Stuff gets lost or stolen all the time. It's a prime source of identity theft. It gives those with a nefarious purpose (lawyers) a way to claim they sent you something. I'm sure I lose stuff all the time in trying to find anything actually useful buried amongst the garbage. About the only things I every send through the mail are to services living in the internet dark ages of yesteryear (primarily government services).

  • Simple Solution (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:25PM (#34610412)
    The easiest thing to do would be to greatly increase the rate for "Junk Mail" (4th class mail or whatever they call it). That "bulk rate pre-metered" stuff that costs next to nothing for a business to send, but still must be routed and delivered just like the payments I mail. I just throw it all away, and I imagine most people do the same. If it is really worth it to send, companies can pay closer to what the normal public pays. This would reduce the annoyance for folks at home while lowering the volume of mail (and raising the per item profit).
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They've got to be very careful; most of their revenue comes from bulk mail right now. If they destroy that market, they'll be insolvent much faster. A small increase in the cost of bulk mail might be survivable; a large increase will make bulk mail unaffordable for the local pizza place, which will quit using it, leaving the postal service much further in the hole. They'd do much better by being in grocery or prescription delivery service in a large way, like cheap next day delivery of refills from your loc

    • Re:Simple Solution (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Fluffeh ( 1273756 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:32PM (#34610490)

      That "bulk rate pre-metered" stuff that costs next to nothing for a business to send, but still must be routed and delivered just like the payments I mail.

      That might not actually be the right approach. If the postal service has to make the trip anyway, this bulk stuff can be delivered pretty much when they please. It might actually be making the most profit for them. The standard mail needs to be delivered on time, so the truck is already making the trip around - why not just pump some trash mail into your mailbox at the same time?

      It might not be profitable to do those runs as a trip on its own, but I can't imagine that there is a lot of extra cost when pushing three envelopes into a mailbox rather than just one - meaning that carrying all those extra envelopes is almost pure profit.

      • Ah but why does the postal service "need to make this trip anyway"? If you cut out all the bulk stuff, they would probably only need to send a truck once a week. It would be way more convenient for me to only have to go out to my mail box once a week, and nobody is going to send anything urgent via regular mail (they always suggest it could take about 2 weeks anyway, and they don't guaranty even that).

        The only reason we need daily USPS service is because our box would be overflowing with all the crap mail w

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Fluffeh ( 1273756 )

          Ah but why does the postal service "need to make this trip anyway"? If you cut out all the bulk stuff, they would probably only need to send a truck once a week.

          They need to make the trip every day as they have a volume of deliveries that have been sent first class. They might only have one first class delivery per street, but as that is the service they are promising when accepting a first class mail to be sent, they therefore have to "make the trip anyway" - so at that point they may as well fill the rest of the truck with crap and try to make a few bucks off it.

          The point is, unless you change "first class" mail to be deliverable once per week rather than on a

          • Um, but I was already talking about first class mail. The post office generally tells you that first class mail will get delivered in "about 2 weeks, probably". In reality it usually only takes a day or two, but they won't commit to that so nobody sending anything urgent is going to use first class mail anyway. And thus, nobody would care if the first class mail only came once a week. And many (like me) would actually prefer it only delivered once a week.
      • by Idbar ( 1034346 )
        That assumes that the weight of carrying all that junk mail does not have an impact on fuel consumption of the car.

        I think that they could get even grab more money from painting the delivery cars with advertisement. They are rolling around and you always see them, why not put a couple of advertisement boxes and charge for them?
    • Re:Simple Solution (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Korin43 ( 881732 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:41PM (#34610556) Homepage

      I was under the impression that junk mail was how the USPS made all of its money already. I suspect they've carefully considered the rates for it.

  • Deliver Route 1, deliver Mo-We-Fr on Week 1, and Tu-Th-Sa on Week 2. On Route 2, do the opposite.

    One carrier then can take care of 2 routes, cutting the workforce, vehicles, gas, and vehicle maintenance needed quite significantly. Make exceptions only for Express Mail, which is rare to Residential Addresses anyway.

  • Wrong (Score:4, Insightful)

    by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:40PM (#34610548)

    Ravnitzky suggests a variety of useful data that could be gathered by postal trucks outfitted with sensors:

    detailed weather readings,

    Once a day? Not useful at all. There are already tens of thousands of automated weather stations scattered across the country - I bet the author isn't aware of that.

    road conditions during storms

    I don't see a detailed record of how road conditions are, once a day, on mostly minor roads would help - and the state police already do this for major highways.

    road quality (e.g. pothole)

    This is not particularly transient - just ask the carriers to phone them in.

    gaps in cellular network coverage, sources of radio frequency interference

    Um... I don't see the market case, but maybe this one is at least plausible.

    and in a homeland security context, detection of chemical or radiological agents.

    Again - once a day?

    • Once a day? Not useful at all.

      Once a day may not make sense in the context of a sensor that captures data for a wide area, but it may in the context of sensors that capture data for very small, localized areas. Especially with regards to the security application that you dismiss out of hand - if postal trucks were driving around with radiological sensors while the Radioactive Boy Scout was building his breeder reactor, once a day would have been more than enough to detect what was going on before he gave hi

  • "detection of chemical or radiological agents"??? like, someone could detonate a nuclear bomb in NYC and no-one would notice except the postman?
  • by Moof123 ( 1292134 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:46PM (#34610594)

    -Evening hours to make it easier to ship (i.e. easier to hand them MONEY!)

    -Drop Tuesday/Thursday mail delivery.

    -Switch to Hybrid trucks, as their driving habits are about as ideal as it comes for a hybrid rig (low speed, lots of start/stop driving).

    -Offer a "Spam" blocker service as a subscription to stop junk mail for a fee.

    -Make their package tracking actually track packages, not just magically go from "In Transit" to "Delivered".

    -Contract with Google to put cameras on top for nearly daily updates to Google Maps Streetview.

    More distopian:

    -Use lobbyists to subvert things so that email/online cannot be legally used to conduct business.

    -Figure out how to be another "Too Big To Fail" organization.

    • > Switch to Hybrid trucks

      Here in Australia, deliveries in the suburbs are done on small, fuel effient motorcycles:
      postie bikes []

      They also have the advantage that they can be ridden right up to the mailbox, then across the driveways/footpath to the next letterbox.

    • So far as the spam blocker... as much as I'd like to be rid of junk mail, the USPS isn't the organization to do it.

      It is inappropriate, immoral, and no doubt illegal to accept money from party "A' to deliver something to "B", and also accept money from "B" to not deliver that same thing.

      If someone pays the post office the correct rate to deliver something, they have entered into a contract. The post office has to deliver it. They can't just throw it away.

  • Why don't they charge 5x more for advertisements? I get these crap coupon wads of paper like three times a week and it all goes right into the trash. Not to mention the dumb ass Charter love letters begging me to come back. I don't want my inbox or mailbox stuffed full of advertisements. We can't stop spam so we should at least be able to stop the snail mail right?
  • Certainly the cost of delivery should reflect on the postage.

    Let's say there is a house 5 miles away from the post office in its own secluded neighborhood, and the road's speed limit is 20 mph. It takes 15 minutes to drive there, and 15 minutes to drive back, for a total of 30 minutes. At a pay rate of $50k/yr [], that's about $24 an hour. The total cost of that delivery, assuming there is only one first class mail in the truck for that house, is $12. The postage you pay right now for a first class mail is 44

    • by waldoj ( 8229 ) <waldo&jaquith,org> on Sunday December 19, 2010 @07:02PM (#34610744) Homepage Journal

      Congratulations, you've just described exactly how the USPS works.

      Bajillions of people who live in rural areas (like me) pick up their mail at the post office, because the cost of delivery to their homes is prohibitive. Universal service is not, in fact, universal, and never has been. Even UPS won't deliver to my house—I've got to pick up their packages at the post office (!), too.

      Also, your example is ludicrous. Have you ever heard of a house so isolated that it's in a "neighborhood" (?) five miles away and yet, mysteriously, this five-mile-long stretch of road, devoid of any homes or businesses, has a 20 MPH speed limit on its road? Because I can't summon any scenario in which that would be the case.

      • by pikine ( 771084 )

        You've apparently never lived in Vermont. But thanks for blaming your frustration on me, for the lack of universal postal service because you chose to live in a rural area.

        • Both sides of my family are from Vermont—Rutland, on one side, and the White River Junction area, on the other. I've spent a lot of time there, and I think I'm about as familiar as somebody who doesn't live there could reasonably be. And I can say that with fair confidence that Vermont's rural areas are no more rural or isolated than the rural areas of Virginia, where I live. (Compare Vermont's population density [] and Virginia's population density []. While you're at it, compare the Blue Ridge Mountains t

          • by pikine ( 771084 )

            I'm only presenting this argument, take it or leave it:

            Google Map indicates that in vast majority of the rural area (pick any state you want), post offices are 10 miles apart in Euclidean distance. However, roads are not straight. That means you easily have to drive for 5 miles from the post office to a postal address. And these roads are curvy and in the woods, so 20 mph is a reasonable speed limit. How fast do you expect trucks to drive anyway? You're not driving a Ferrari.

            I'm not arguing literally that t

  • by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:56PM (#34610692)

    The problem with the USPS is that it while it is not funded by the Federal Government, it is controlled by it. This quasi-enterprise status is completely impractical.

    To illustrate the issue the USPS has massive overcapacity for the service level it provides. Any business faced with this would consolidate or downsize in order to save money. Unfortunately Congress won't let them do it. Any time the USPS wants to close a branch, the people living in the immediate area protest to their Congresscritter who then blocks it. The result is gross inefficiency.

    If it were possible to slap the Congress upside the head on this issue the USPS would have a chance. Right now it doesn't.

  • The post office is going to lose money because unlike UPS, they can't raise rates. They have to visit everyone's house 6 days a week.

    It's actually a very very efficient organization. It's the constraints put upon it that make it so that it loses money. Congress won't allow this cost saving, Congress won't allow to cut service. Congress won't allow it to raise rates.

    If you know anyone that's a postal carrier, you know it's a stressful job. Hence the term, going postal.

    • The post office is going to lose money because unlike UPS, they can't raise rates. They have to visit everyone's house 6 days a week.

      It's actually a very very efficient organization. It's the constraints put upon it that make it so that it loses money. Congress won't allow this cost saving, Congress won't allow to cut service. Congress won't allow it to raise rates.


      Actually it has made profits fairly consistently in the past, it posted a profit of $910 million in 2006. Since then it has taken it on the chin with the economy, and - as you note - the refusal of Congress to allow cost reductions or raising rates to allow it to adapt.

      Any number of service cut backs that a private company would make in a heartbeat can restore it to profitability, as can appropriate rate increases.

      It is a highly efficient operation - you cannot find another postal system in the world that d

  • If the service benefits most US taxpayers. Besides which, if I were going to spend a fortune on sensors, I'd put them on garbage trucks instead. You *know* the garbage is getting picked up, but the mail truck doesn't necessarily go everywhere, all the time

  • Login link? Where?
  • The 'Wanted' posters at the post office...
    You're there, you got your package, you're trying to mail something, this guy's wanted in 12 states.
    Yeah, now what? Ok.
    I check the guy standing in line behind me...
    if it's not him, that's pretty much all I can do.

  • any magazine that offers the occupant something for sale then the USPS should be able to charge extra for the delivery of that advertising (junk mail) i have a grocery sack of junk-mail magazines waiting to be recycled and its all pulp spam to me, buy one item 5 years ago and they all share your address and spam your snail mail box for the rest of your life.
  • I think we all know that the postal services is not going away. They will increase fees and get more from the tax payers. Hopefully, they will make good decisions, and perhaps someone should tell them that people are sending more emails than case they didn't get the memo. I would also suggest that some might be sending more written letters than emails since the wiki leaks. There has got to be more than one company or agency that is now sending a few more paper items because of that.
  • All the USPO is at this point is a junk mail distributor. Mail has been by and large replaced by email. They duplicate efforts of private companies that could easily fill any gap they would leave behind. The $8.5 billion loss is the tip of the iceberg if we consider unfunded pension liabilities.
  • by perpetual pessimist ( 1245416 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @09:12PM (#34611532)
    From the postal service's own Inspector General report []:

    The following paper demonstrates that the current system of funding the Postal Service’s Civil Service Retirement System pension responsibility is inequitable and has resulted in the Postal Service overpaying $75 billion to the pension fund.

    The postal service is having money extracted from it each year, channeled to other parts of the federal government pension systems (mostly military). This is to help disguise how bad the federal budget is overdrawn. If the post office were allowed to fund their peoples' pensions the way every other government agency is, they'd be showing a profit.

  • I have had this idea for a long time for the postal service to both make and save money. I would pay a small monthly fee for the post office to NOT deliver my mail.

    Specifically, I want a virtual PO Box. All my mail would go to a processing center where the front and back of each item is scanned, OCRed, and placed on a web site where I can look at it all. I can then direct them to send or shred any individual item. Because the return address, etc, is OCRed, I can also set up filters for mail I want autom

  • by bayankaran ( 446245 ) on Monday December 20, 2010 @02:13AM (#34613172) Homepage
    USPS is a world class organization. Nonsensical privatization or selling off, or unnecessary opening up will kill one of the best institutions of USA. I have used Postal Services in USA, Japan, Canada, India, UK and many other countries. The level of service and professionalism of USPS is world class.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN