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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?

  • by clarkkent09 ( 1104833 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:30PM (#34610448)

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

  • Re:Simple Solution (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:31PM (#34610466)

    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 local pharmacies.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • by clarkkent09 ( 1104833 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @06:42PM (#34610562)

    UPS won't send a postcard from Alaska to Florida for 28 cents, either.
    You don't know that because right now they are forbidden by law to do so.

    What is the real cost of sending that postcard? Of course if you carried just that one postcard by a special flight it would be thousands of dollars, but that's not how it works. A better question is what is the cost of delivering all the postcards in the US divided by the number of postcards? In any case, the real cost of something is the real cost, it can't be avoided. If it costs 48c to send that postcard you can't magically make it 28c by regulation. The cost is just shifted somewhere else, it still has to be paid by someone.

  • 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.

  • by segedunum ( 883035 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @07:10PM (#34610786)
    I see a lot of people roll out the usual Milton Friedman 'Privatise it!' option to everything, but I'm afraid that a lot of private delivery firms just do not see it as cost effective to deliver to a lot of, mainly rural, areas. It's the same thing here in the UK with the Royal Mail. No matter how much anyone talks about privatisation you can always bet that there will be government subsidies needed to fill the gap needed, because you can't have a functioning economy and communities without some kind of postal service unless you tell everyone to move to areas that delivery firms find cost effective. I can't see that being an option.

    When you subsidise private firms to provide a service they don't really want to provide then you get something far worse than anything the government could run itself. It simply doesn't work.
  • by jrumney ( 197329 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @08:22PM (#34611180)

    Where's my interest in saving you some money?

    Food prices.

  • Re:Simple Solution (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Fluffeh ( 1273756 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @08:32PM (#34611270)

    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 daily basis, you will end up driving around empty trucks each day of the week. Yes, your per item profit will be higher, but your overall net profit will be lower.

    If they can indeed negotiate a "once per week" trip down a street for any mail item, I totally agree that increasing the price significantly on the junk mail will be a sound business decision, but until they do that, they are indeed likely making money by filling your mailbox with all the crap that they can shove into a truck.

  • 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 zach_the_lizard ( 1317619 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @09:46PM (#34611796)
    Except in government, your revenue stream does not depend on pleasing the customer, so you can fail as long as you like, and still maintain the same level of income (or greater).
  • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @11:53PM (#34612594)

    A couple of things: First, it's not your tax dollars, the USPS is not a full government agency, it's quasi-government. It's basically a private company that's wholly owned by the government, but receives no funding whatsoever and has to be self-sustaining.

    Second, the USPS is already a viable business venture, except that stupid Congress keeps getting in the way. For instance, one of the reasons they're having problems now is because they need to adjust to the new market realities: the internet is taking over, and people aren't sending letters any more, so with less mail going around, it's not economical to send drivers around to every single address every day without a large enough volume of mail to deliver. This problem could be easily solved: simply cut out one or two days of deliveries (except for Express mail). However, they're not allowed to do that, because stupid Congress has mandated that they deliver mail 6 days out of the week.

    The USPS needs to concentrate on the things it does well: it's a reliable way of getting things around for low cost, as long as you're not in too big a hurry. No one's going to miss receiving junk mail on Saturdays or Wednesdays (two days that could be cut). It's good for bulk mail, and also for small packages, now that people are ordering more and more stuff online. You're also more likely to receive your goods intact, as a recent Popular Mechanics article found that, in an experiment, the USPS treated packages far better than Fedex or UPS, who both subjected packages to much larger shocks, and also intentionally beat up packages marked "Fragile". The USPS just needs to concentrate on providing good, cheap, but not necessarily fast service, which is what most people want these days, and they'll be fine.

  • 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 Abcd1234 ( 188840 ) on Monday December 20, 2010 @11:36AM (#34615680) Homepage

    If you are an honest businessman who refuses to pay bribes (like Rearden in Atlas Shrugged) you will pretty soon be buried by your competitors who reap all the advantages of having powerful politicians on their side. Pretty soon there will be no more businessmen who are honest because the environment created by the government power makes that impossible.

    And if you're an honest businessman who refuses to burn down the stores of his competitors, pretty soon your competitors willjust burn your store down and you'll be screwed.

    "But wait!", you say, "That's illegal!"

    Yeah. Exactly.

    The US government is corrupt because people accept that it's corrupt. They accept that legalized bribary (aka, "lobbying") is considered a-okay. They accept the utterly idiotic premise that "money" == "speech".

    Of course, as a Randroid, the only obvious solution is to tear down government. Fortunately, reality is far less ridiculous, as many governments the world over seem to function without US-style cronyism, as they've passed laws and instituted structures to help battle the forces of corruption (see Elections Canada for a good example).

    But, you just go back and re-read Atlas Smug... err... Shrugged, while the rest of us get on in the real world.

You know, Callahan's is a peaceable bar, but if you ask that dog what his favorite formatter is, and he says "roff! roff!", well, I'll just have to...