The new U.S. Postal Service vehicles, which start delivering mail in 2023, will be boxy and big-windowed, and many of them will be electric. They'll also look like nothing you've ever seen, at least not in a mail truck. Their shape may remind you, instead, of Donald Duck's head. But while some find them funny and almost everyone finds them cute, those vehicles pack a serious technological punch and their surprising appearance will help save lives. They're a great example of what thoughtful design can do.

USPS announced this week that it had awarded a 10-year contract to Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Defense for 50,000 to 165,000 of these new mail trucks. It also released images of the truck, which it calls NGDV, or Next Generation Delivery Vehicle. Across social media, reaction to these pictures was pretty much, "Aw ... "

But don't be fooled by the fact that the NGDVs look like a cartoon version of a mail truck. They're not only a significant--and badly needed--upgrade over the existing fleet, they're actually very modern trucks whose funny-looking shape makes them safer for both letter carriers and postal customers. Yes, they have things like air conditioning and a dashboard clock, both of which the Postal Service's antiquated fleet lacks. (The existing trucks are also roughly 30 years past their expected lifespan and have been catching fire of late.)

The new trucks have front and rear bumper sensors, forward collision warning, and automatic braking. They also have telematics, technology most modern fleets have which allows dispatchers to track both the vehicles and their maintenance. They have blind spot warnings, backup cameras, and 360-degree cameras that will allow operators to better see what's going on around and behind the truck.

But the best safety features may be exactly the things that make the trucks look so cute, or so silly, depending on your point of view. The huge wraparound windshield will allow drivers to see pedestrians in front of the truck much, much better. This is a bigger deal than you might think. Dozens of children are killed every year by drivers of trucks and SUVs who can't see from the driver's seat that there's a small person right in front of the car. To get an idea how bad this is, watch an Indiana news station experiment in which it put eight children in a line right in front of a Chevy Tahoe and the person in the driver's seat was unable to see any of them.

The low hood and front bumper that give the truck its "duckbill" are safety features too, believe it or not. As New York's Alissa Walker explains, a pedestrian who gets hit by a traditionally shaped truck or SUV is likely to take that impact in the torso, which is to say his or her vital organs will absorb the blow. The lower bumper would hit most people in the legs, which obviously isn't desirable but is much less likely to be fatal.

EV maker Workhorse loses out

The Oshkosh contract is a big blow to EV manufacturer Workhorse, which made news five years ago by combining drones with its electric delivery vehicles. Since then, the company sold off its drone division to focus on winning the USPS deal, and its bid was for a fully electric fleet. Oshkosh's fleet will be a combination of internal combustion vehicles and electric ones, but USPS may have the ability to retrofit the gasoline-powered cars as electric ones in the future. 

Some observers are disappointed that the Postal Service didn't commit to an all-electric fleet now, despite President Joe Biden's promise to replace all federal government vehicles with EVs. Others argue that an all-electric postal fleet isn't yet practical in rural areas where new trucks are needed ASAP.

Even if some of them will still be powered by gasoline, the NGDVs are well worth celebrating. Letter carriers deserve air conditioning, modern capabilities, and to stop worrying that their vehicles might catch fire. Pedestrians deserve a lower risk of injury or death. And when you've got Twitter swooning over the cuteness of your design, you're probably doing something right.