Image: Postal Service van than runs on hydrogen
Ric Francis  /  AP
U.S. Postal Service mail carrier Aldo Vasquez loads mail into a Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell vehicle Wednesday in Irvine, Calif.
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/28/2008 4:44:23 PM ET 2008-07-28T20:44:23

It's just one out of 220,000 U.S. Postal Service vehicles, but the hydrogen-powered fuel cell car now being used in this city represents the agency's quest to reduce its petroleum appetite.

The USPS station in Irvine last Wednesday became the first in the nation to test drive a Chevrolet Equinox as part of General Motors' Project Driveway, which puts more than 100 fuel cell vehicles in the hands of average drivers as part of a large-scale market test. A second station on the East Coast will also receive an Equinox. The city has not been announced.

The hydrogen-fueled vehicles are considered more environmentally friendly because they emit only water vapor.

By participating in the demonstration program, the postal service will explore the vehicle's ability to handle the demands of a delivery vehicle, which makes multiple stops daily and are used six days a week.

"There's a lot of learning that we can get out of these vehicles that will help the nation," said Walter O'Tormey, vice president of engineering for the postal service.

The post office operates the largest civilian fleet of vehicles in the world — 220,000 motor vehicles — and is spending an additional $600 million in gasoline this year, O'Tormey said.

O'Tormey noted that a 1-cent increase in the cost of a gallon of fuel adds $8 million to its annual expenses, which were $1.7 billion last year.

The postal service relies on the sale of postage, products and services, not tax dollars, to pay for the cost.

"That's why we're looking for a vehicle that reduces, or eliminates our dependence on petroleum products, that will create a healthier environment for the next generation," he said.

Letter carriers are testing a number of different technologies in 43,000 vehicles, O'Tormey said. They include vehicles that run on ethanol, electricity and natural gas.

USPS staff will fuel the vehicle at a hydrogen fueling station at the University of California, Irvine, campus. General Motors will provide the maintenance, fuel and service of the vehicle.

The Postal Service is also using 10 Ford Motor Co Escape hybrid vehicles to deliver mail and is in talks with Ford about testing a plug-in hybrid in 2009.

"We know that we would be bankrupting the next generation if we were to make a decision to buy the wrong vehicle," O'Tormey said.

One issue for the Postal Service, O'Tormey said, is that electric and hydrogen vehicles make less noise than those with traditional combustion engines — a potential safety issue.

"If you had kids out in the street and they weren't paying attention, they may not hear the carrier pulling up," O'Tormey said. "So the carrier has to be very sensitive to his environment."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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