Usually, when cars start catching on fire without having first been in a crash, people start freaking out. Manufacturers issue recalls, andand it's a big deal. But when the public doesn't drive those vehicles, those fires tend to get a lot less publicity.
That seems to be the case with the Grumman Long Life Vehicle (LLV) or as you probably know it, the Postal Service van, according to a report published on Monday by Trucks.com that alleges that there have been upward of 120 noncrash vehicle fires in the last five years with the LLV, 12 of which happened between January and April of this year.
The LLV had a production run from 1987 to 1994, and the USPS has been keeping them alive and on the road ever since. The LLV is based on the Chevrolet S10 chassis, powered by GM's objectively terrible Iron Duke 4 cylinder engine, which is bolted to a three-speed automatic transmission.
The LLV has an aluminum body and features a narrower front track than the rear, which gives it its excellent maneuverability at low speeds, and its rather agricultural underpinnings have made it supercheap to operate, despite its terrible fuel economy. That low cost is a significant reason why the USPS maintains a fleet of nearly 140,000 LLVs across the country.
According to Trucks.com, the agency launched an inquiry into the fires in 2014 and employed the services of an engineering firm to find the root cause of these fires, but the results of the investigation were inconclusive. At that time the post office doubled down on maintenance, but that 120-fires figure suggests that wasn't enough to address the problem.
One of the things that makes these fires so tough to track down is the fact that the average age of the LLVs in the USPS fleet is over 27 years. That age coupled with the hard life lived by the vehicles makes them atypical in the world of road-legal vehicles. Also, the USPS is on the verge of selecting the LLV's purpose-built replacement, which likely makes it reluctant to spend lots of money on ancient vehicles.
"The safety of our employees is a matter of great importance to the Postal Service. Vehicles that are purchased for use by our employees are required to meet all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMSS). The requirement to meet all FMSS requirements applies not only to the purchase of commercially built vehicles but also purpose-built vehicles such as the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV)," Kim Frum, senior public relations representative for the USPS, told Roadshow.
"The Postal Service is currently in the procurement process for NGDVs, with delivery of NGDVs anticipated to begin by December 2022," Frum continued. "In addition to requiring that all vehicles purchased for our employees meet all FMSS, the Postal Service has implemented mandated maintenance schedules and fine-tune repair and maintenance procedures for the existing Postal Service vehicle fleet, with the goal of making sure vehicles used by postal employees are safe to operate before they are put into use on a daily basis."
Currently, USPS doesn't list any reports of fatalities stemming from the fires, and only one report of injury where a mail carrier burned one hand, according to Trucks.com. Still, 120 fires in five years is a lot of damaged property -- both the government's and private citizens' personal mail -- and those numbers have mail carriers rightfully concerned.(PDF)
It's unclear at this time whether another agency like NHTSA will intervene and force a recall, and what that recall would look like.
Originally published May 13.
Update, May 14: Adds comment from USPS.