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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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  • 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: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.

  • 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.

  • by clarkkent09 ( 1104833 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @07:17PM (#34610826)

    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 that you are correct and it is because they are bribed by the businesses. Where is the real problem? With the fact that the government officials accept bribes or with the businessmen who bribe them? Lets say the government has the power to affect business in a dramatic way through regulation (as it does), it is corrupt (it is) and it is willing to accept bribes to help one company or another. 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.

  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Sunday December 19, 2010 @07:52PM (#34611020)

    Perhaps that's part of the problem with USPS: a vastly over-the-top type of service -- it can hardly be cheap. I do understand that such service is good to have, but it should come at a hefty price. I presume that plenty of private companies would be glad to ship $100K bars around for 1% of their value. USPS can't profitably offer that service for anything less, yet they do precisely that. All that government-backed-security costs lots of money. It's not free just because it's law, enforcement costs real dollars.

  • 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.

  • Re:Privacy concerns (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DavidTC ( 10147 ) <> on Sunday December 19, 2010 @10:06PM (#34611922) Homepage

    Actually, no.

    The post office can deliver onto private property.

    In fact, believe it or not, it can't be kept out by property owners if a resident wants their mail delivered somewhere. If someone wants their mail delivered inside of a locked apartment building, or even a college dorm that doesn't allow non-residents, and the post office wants to deliver there, the owner of the building cannot keep them out.

    In short, if they have a letter for you, and you want them to deliver it to you at a location, and they want to deliver it at that location, they technically can demand to be let through whatever locked doors they want to deliver it to that location, regardless of whose property that is.

    This is all mostly moot because the post office doesn't want to deliver mail in such a manner, though, that would be insane. It will often demand that people put up mailboxes on the public right away if they want delivery, and would certainly look long and hard before deciding to deliver mail on private property against someone's wishes.

    But it raises an interesting legal point if postal employees are used for anything else while delivering mail.

    But we're talking about putting them on postal vehicles, which operate 99.99999% on public roads, and it would be a simple matter to leave them off any vehicles that leave them.

  • 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 hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <> on Sunday December 19, 2010 @10:37PM (#34612092) Journal

    Yeah, why should they have running water and electricity, those filthy hillbillies! Let them shit in buckets and use candles! Oh wait a tick, could it be that increasingly the US government, as well as the states, are moving everything online because it is cheaper than printing and mailing crap, not to mention dealing with the sorting and filing of said crap?

    If you wanted to cut a day or two out of mailing letters fine, but I just had to help a nephew fill out all the paperwork for him to start college. We are talking tons of electronic forms and PDF and tons of other eCrap that with dialup would have been frankly impossible to accomplish. That of course doesn't count the fact that having an infrastructure that isn't from the fricking stone age opens up all kinds of new opportunities, like using Netflix instead of blowing through gas going to the nearest Redbox, eLearning and other ways to better yourself like virtual classrooms, and the ability top start new businesses and save on greenhouse gases by the way of eCommerce and Telecommuting.

    So lets please step off the "corporation yay!" bandwagon for a minute, shall we? We have been kissing the telecoms booties here in the USA for damned near 30 years now, and even our largest cities have broadband speeds that are honestly shameful compared to the rest of the planet, and much of our rural areas have land lines laid down when fricking Ike was president. If we wait for the "free market" in the case of nationwide broadband we will ALL end up on the short bus to crappytown, left behind while the world advances, while all we will have to show for it is some crappy quality Youtube videos of Telecom CEOs snorting coke off of $1000 hooker asses while having their balls tickled with $100 bills. It is time we treat broadband no different that electricity or water, take the last mile AWAY from the telecoms by laying OUR OWN LINES, and then if they want to compete they can get off their asses and offer better service for less money. That is what the free market is supposed to be about, competition, right?

Who goeth a-borrowing goeth a-sorrowing. -- Thomas Tusser