Transport

Startup looks to reinvent freight by rail with autonomous electric haulers

Startup looks to reinvent frei...
Parallel Systems is currently testing its autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles on a closed track in the Los Angeles area
Parallel Systems is currently testing its autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles on a closed track in the Los Angeles area
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Parallel Systems is currently testing its autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles on a closed track in the Los Angeles area
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Parallel Systems is currently testing its autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles on a closed track in the Los Angeles area
The platform will see two autonomous electric haulers transport single or double-stacked containers via existing rail infrastructure, which can roll independently or as part of a platoon
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The platform will see two autonomous electric haulers transport single or double-stacked containers via existing rail infrastructure, which can roll independently or as part of a platoon
Micro terminals installed nearer to customers can load and unload containers via crane
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Micro terminals installed nearer to customers can load and unload containers via crane
Container-carrying autonomous electric haulers can assemble themselves into platoons, with operations controlled by proprietary machine-learning software
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Container-carrying autonomous electric haulers can assemble themselves into platoons, with operations controlled by proprietary machine-learning software
Prototypes have been built, and recent Series A funding will allow Parallel Systems to move the project forward
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Prototypes have been built, and recent Series A funding will allow Parallel Systems to move the project forward
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A California startup co-founded by three former SpaceX engineers has emerged from stealth with a plan to build autonomous electric vehicles to haul freight by rail, and has raised a sizable pot of cash to move things forward.

"We founded Parallel to allow railroads to open new markets, increase infrastructure utilization, and improve service to accelerate freight decarbonization," said co-founder of Parallel System and former Head of Avionics at SpaceX, Matt Soule. "Our business model is to give railroads the tools to convert some of the US$700 billion US trucking industry to rail. The Parallel system can also help alleviate the supply chain crisis by enabling low cost and regular movement of freight in and out of ports. Parallel’s competitive edge is our autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles, which are designed to move freight cleaner, faster, safer and more cost effectively than traditional trains or trucks."

Instead of a massive train hauling a bunch of freight cars from A to B, the Parallel setup would see shipping containers mounted onto individually-powered autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles – which can operate independently but will be able to self-assemble along existing rail infrastructure to form freight platoons.

Single or double-stacked containers will be loaded onto two Parallel vehicles, with the company aiming for up to 500 miles (800 km) of per-charge range and a recharge time of under an hour. An autonomous system uses onboard cameras for hazard detection and the setup is expected to boast a 10x shorter braking distance than traditional freight trains.

Micro terminals installed nearer to customers can load and unload containers via crane
Micro terminals installed nearer to customers can load and unload containers via crane

Vehicles forming a platoon won't be coupled to each other, so containers needing to leave the main body can split off at points to follow a different route. This feature will also come in handy at vehicle crossings – breaking apart the platoon at any point with both sections coming to a stop either side of the crossing, and once road vehicles have moved through, the platoon can reassemble and roll on.

The hardware is only part of the story of course, and autonomous operation will be controlled by proprietary software that employs machine learning to optimize routing, scheduling and energy usage. Large traditional rail terminals could also be replaced by micro terminals closer to customers, reducing or eliminating local trucking needs, and containers could be loaded from a port crane directly onto the rail network.

Parallel Systems – which was founded by former SpaceX engineers Matt Soule, John Howard and Ben Stabler – says that limited track access and centralized traffic control make the closed network of the existing railroad infrastructure an ideal candidate for "the safe and early commercialization of autonomous technology."

Prototypes have been built, and recent Series A funding will allow Parallel Systems to move the project forward
Prototypes have been built, and recent Series A funding will allow Parallel Systems to move the project forward

It's relatively early days for the idea, but the company is already on its second-generation prototype autonomous electric freight hauler, and is currently testing vehicles on a closed track in the Los Angeles area. It's just raised $49.55 million in Series A funding to take the project to the next level and build a fleet of vehicles, start more advanced testing and expand the development team. The video below has more.

How It Works

Source: Parallel Systems

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21 comments
21 comments
Rick O
Okay, I am 100% on board with this. I always thought trains should have "feeler" drones that run out ahead of them on the rail, at the train's braking distance. Then if the drone spots an obstacle, or detects a track defect, it can signal the train to stop in time. A system like the one mentioned here could work in a similar fashion. With one container running just shortly in advance of the other cars. If it encounters a problem, the others can all stop in time, and avoid massive derailments. I think for tankers and coal cars, they may need to use standard setups. But again, a "feeler" car could run ahead.
Expanded Viewpoint
Just how critical is the problem that they are trying to provide a solution to?? Has there been a study made of how to increase the efficiency of our rail system and this is the result of it? Is it really going to be cost effective? The electricity needed to charge up the batteries in these things doesn't grow on trees or come out of thin air, so all that is being done is adding in more steps of energy transfer and usage. There is no amount of "de-carbonizing" going on here, and if anything, even MORE carbon based fuels are being burned right now to allow these things to be created, again, they don't just grow on trees somewhere.
ARF!
pffft, ohhh sweet summer chaild, this ain't anything new. if I had an absurdly amount of dervoxx in the creditory systemophere, years and years ago I was already thinking about drop-in contain-o-crafts where intermodal containers basically auto-slowboated themselves between ports, so. ahhh, to be poor and creative...
DaveWesely
I sense you have a lot of questions, Expanded. Let me help you out. First answer: They are trying to make freight transport more efficient. As stated in the video, rail is ten times more energy efficient than trucks because steel on steel rolling resistance is much lower than rubber on asphalt.
Second answer: Yes, my guess is they wouldn't take this kind of risk without some study. As far as real world experience, check out this article - https://medium.com/@ryan79z28/im-a-twenty-year-truck-driver-i-will-tell-you-why-america-s-shipping-crisis-will-not-end-bbe0ebac6a91
Third answer: What makes you think this wouldn't be cost effective? Being ten times more energy efficient should be more cost effective. Not having to manually break and re-attach rail cars into long chains alone would create a more cost effective solution.
Fourth answer: Actually electric energy does come out of thin air with wind turbines. It is the fastest growing energy source in the world. And electrical transmission, storage, and motors are far more efficient (90%) than oil. For every gallon of gas purchased, 40% more is used for extraction, refining and transport. So it is really equal to 1.4 gallons of fuel. And then when you burn it in an internal combustion engine, maximum theoretical efficiency is 33%. In cars and trucks it is closer to 25%. So for every gallon of fuel used in transport, only about a sixth of the energy in it is actually used to move things.
Last statement: Here you actually have a point. We are using oil to manufacture green energy devices. Unfortunately we can't just snap our fingers to change this. That is no reason to stop de-carbonizing our energy sources and uses.

What is more interesting to me on this subject is how will they be able to selectively side rail individual cars. Will mini containers using one instead of two haulers be developed for smaller loads? Do they really need a 500 mile battery range? That would be 10 hours of transport at 50 mph. Shuffling containers around the port may not need so much reserve. Plus if haulers can be charged while waiting at a siding for oncoming cars to pass, that would reduce battery needs considerably.

But the biggest question of all: Will the rail industry actually modernize?


EH
Brilliant idea! Rick O's feeler drones are also a great idea. (I had a similar idea using high-speed air drones to lookout for cops and hazards to allow driving insanely fast, but Rick's idea is far more socially responsible.) Perhaps there's some way to recharge over some lengths of track while the vehicles are in transit -- either the traditional overhead wires, or a new system at track level, which might use direct connection, but be smart enough to only be on while actually being tapped, or some sort of inductive charging. Putting in new rail sidings near electric substations for charging "rest stops" would be another alternative. It also might be worth having some fairing / aerodynamic elements for the front and back of containers to reduce energy use further.
paleochocolate
Maybe you could attach them on end and that way they could use less energy and have a massively higher throughput.

Oh wait
ljaques
Outstanding idea. Leave it to Musk Munchkins! (gd&r) Now if we can figure out how to implement these inside the corrupt dockworker union systems, we'll have the problem handled in no time and find shipping costs going down while travel times drop, too.
Intellcity
Many end user rail spurs have been abandoned in favor of trucks due to flexibility and speed. Maybe a lower shipping cost could turn the tide back to rail from intermodal trucking, especially at ports.
TechGazer
People who frequently find themselves waiting a long time for a train to pass a crossing would like this, since it would allow shorter trains to be scheduled to leave openings for cross traffic. A downside is that frequent small trains might mean more wildlife being hit.
riczero-b
Just wondering about the safety of using the freight containers as chassis : these things are ok with compressive loads but this would add tension , shear and vibration...
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