The US Postal Service Is Working on Self-Driving Mail Trucks

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds—and if the United States Postal Service has its way, the robots won’t stop them, either.

Yes, the agency you know best for bringing you junk mail addressed to whomever lived in your apartment before you has caught robofever. It plans to put semiautonomous mail trucks into service in just seven years, and it seems to think it can pull off a shift away from human driving without shedding mail carrier jobs.

That’s all according to the postal service’s Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the agency and last week released a report on its plans to work autonomy into its 228,000-vehicle fleet. Those plans are already in motion: The post office has partnered with the University of Michigan to build what it’s calling an Autonomous Rural Delivery Vehicle, which it wants to launch on 28,000 rural routes nationwide as early as 2025.

In this vision, the postal worker sits behind the wheel but lets the truck do the driving, sorting mail and stuffing letters and packages into mail boxes while rolling down the street. Eliminating the need to constantly park the vehicle, get out, then get back in and get back to driving would yield, the report says, “small but cumulatively significant time savings.”

This being a semiautonomous mail truck, the driver would have to be ready to take over control at all times. In the beginning, researchers say, this will be especially important while navigating from the post office to the beginning of the postal route, and while navigating intersections.

The postal service reasons the experimentation is less risky on rural routes, which have less traffic and fewer pedestrians and cyclists, “and are therefore more forgiving of an imperfect AV model.” It’s exactly the reason vehicle tech developers like Tesla and Cadillac have released semiautonomous features for highway-only driving. With wide, open, well-marked roads, it’s a much less complicated environment for a robot to navigate.

According to the report, Michigan researchers will deliver their first semiautonomous delivery truck prototype in December of this year. If all goes according to plan, the USPS will pilot 10 prototypes on rural routes in 2019, leading up to that full-scale, countrywide rural deployment between 2022 and 2025. The mail people also say they plan to look into city deliveries and building fully driverless vehicles, the kind that don’t need steering wheels or pedals.

You’ve Got Self-Driving Mail

One reason the postal service wants robocars? They could help solve its money problems. The agency lost $ 5.6 billion last year, mostly because Congress demands it shell out prefunded retiree health care benefits. (The idea here is that all employees’ health care will be completely paid for by the time they retire. No other agency operates this way.)

The report’s authors insist they’re not looking to dump human workers, and that AVs can help by trimming other costs. The agency paid about $ 67 million in repair and tort costs associated with vehicle crashes last year. It also shelled out $ 570 million for diesel fuel. If the robots perform as promised, making driving much safer and more efficient, those costs could plummet.

If the USPS sticks with this plan, the jobs of the nation’s 310,000 mail carriers could change, for better or worse. Once the vehicles do all the driving, the humans will be left with the sorting and the intricacies of the delivery process. Unless, of course, a robot can figure out how to do those too. And whatever the report says about protecting jobs, it’s clear that the best way to cut down on employee health care costs is to cut down on employees. The Postal Service says it plans to sit down with unions to discuss the implications of this tech after the University of Michigan delivers its prototype in December. (Those unions, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

But maybe the best reason for USPS to experiment with autonomous vehicles is to keep up with the Joneses. FedEx is investing in small autonomous vehicles that could make deliveries without the aid of human drivers. Amazon has an entire team dedicated to researching how autonomous vehicles (and drones) could transport its goods directly to customers. Google holds patents on unmanned truck delivery. DHL has posited driverless vehicles could be endlessly useful in warehousing operations, last-mile deliveries, and logistics operations. UPS has a test truck that shoots drones.

Which gets us back to one final idea floated by the USPS Office of the Inspector General in the report. Mail carriers drive the same exact routes almost every day. If the service kits out its vans with the right sorts of sensors, those vans could build and constantly update the incredibly detailed 3-D maps that help self-driving cars navigate—for a price, of course. Yeah, other startups and companies have been built expressly to collect and mine mapping data—but don’t count out the letter carriers. If rain and hail can’t stop them, why should the future?

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The Senate Is About to Approve Commercial Sale of Self-Driving Cars (But Not Trucks)

You will soon be able to ride home from your local car dealership in a car that finds its way there unassisted while you nap or read. That reality came a whole lot closer this week, with bipartisan agreement in the Senate on legislation allowing self-driving cars to take the the roads. The law is expected to come up for vote in the near future, and pass.

The House passed similar legislation, also with bipartisan support, several weeks ago. That legislation allows car manufacturers to sell up to 25,000 autonomous vehicles the first year they offer them. That will go up to 100,000 cars a year if the self-driving cars prove as safe as human-driven ones. And that’s not all. The Trump administration also helped out recently by issuing voluntary safety guidelines for autonomous cars and at the same time requesting that states avoid writing laws or regulations governing self-driving cars and possibly hampering their introduction.

The senators who arrived at the self-driving deal note that autonomous cars appear to be safer than human-driven ones. “Ultimately, we expect adoption of self-driving vehicle technologies will save lives, improve mobility for people with disabilities, and create new jobs,” said Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in a joint statement. They may be right: When a Tesla owner died while his car was in Autopilot mode last summer, company founder Elon Musk pointed out that it was the first known Autopilot fatality in 130 million miles of driving, whereas there’s a human fatality for every 89 million miles of traditional driving.

But if cars with no one at the wheel will soon become a common sight, the same won’t be true of semi trucks. The Teamsters successfully lobbied for the House version of the bill to limit self-driving vehicles to 10,000 pounds or less. That could be a problem for the U.S. trucking industry, which was short an estimated 48,000 drivers at the end of 2015, a shortage that’s expected to grow to 175,000 over the next seven years. That will create enormous pressure to replace hard-to-find long-haul truck drivers with no-muss, no-fuss AI.

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Ford And Lyft Partner to Bring Self-Driving Cars to Public Roads

Ford Motor (f) has struck a partnership with Lyft to develop and test self-driving vehicles on the ride-hailing company’s growing network of passengers.

Ford, which announced the partnership in a blog post early Wednesday, said that the goal is to put self-driving vehicles onto Lyft’s ride-hailing network. Just don’t expect to see self-driving Ford vehicles shuttling around Lyft customers anytime soon.

The initial aim is to combine the strengths of each company. For Ford, that’s large-scale manufacturing and development of autonomous vehicles technology, which its partner Argo AI is currently working on. Lyft, meanwhile, has a vast network of customers across the United States that has given the startup greater insight in how people move within cities. Both companies have fleet management and Big Data experience, according to Ford’s blog post written by Sherif Marakby, Ford Vice President of autonomous vehicles and electrification.

Ford, which is now being led by CEO Jim Hackett, hopes to learn how to create self-driving cars that can easily connect with a platform like Lyft’s so they can be quickly dispatched to pick up customers. The automaker also wants to use Lyft’s data (and its own) to determine which cities would be worth launching a self-driving vehicle service and what kind of infrastructure would be needed to properly service and maintain a fleet of self-driving vehicles.

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Lyft is taking a more collaborative approach to self-driving cars, unlike rival Uber. Earlier this year, Lyft launched an open platform designed to give automakers and tech companies working on self-driving cars access to its ride-sharing network of nearly 1 million rides per day.

And even before the open platform began, Lyft has been locking in partnerships. The company landed its first major partnership in January 2016 with GM, which like Ford also wants to eventually deploy self-driving cars with Lyft’s network.

Lyft has made at least three other partnerships in 2017, including startups Drive.ai and nuTonomy, and Waymo, the Google self-driving car project that spun out to become a business under Alphabet (googl).

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