Autonomous vehicles

A new startup thinks the future of trains is battery-powered, autonomous, and small

Parallel Systems, founded by former SpaceX engineers, just announced a $50 million Series A and plans to develop its second-gen rail vehicle.
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Parallel Systems

· 4 min read

The days of sitting at an intersection while an interminably long train clambers along could soon be over.

A new startup co-founded by former SpaceX engineers is developing autonomous, battery-powered electric rail vehicles that can be as small as a single shipping container. Parallel Systems says its rail vehicles can carry nearly three times more capacity than a semi-truck, travel up to 500 miles between charges, and recharge in less than one hour.

The company announced itself today, along with a $50 million Series A round led by Anthos Capital.

The US has the largest rail system in the world, and today the railroad companies rely on huge volumes and very long trains to transport those loads. The length of freight trains increased about 25% between 2008 and 2019, and the average train is more than 1.2 miles long, according to a US Government Accountability Office analysis from 2019. In some cases, this makes it difficult for rail to compete with the $700 billion US trucking industry, which is better-equipped to handle smaller loads and shorter distances.

Parallel Systems aims to move smaller volumes and get closer to population hubs, which could make rail more aligned with current logistics trends. With limited real estate around major ports, many companies are moving warehouses and distribution centers closer to the cities they serve.

Matt Soule, Parallel Systems co-founder and CEO, told Emerging Tech Brew that the team built its initial prototypes more than a year ago. The company is now ready to begin testing its second-generation vehicle to verify the autonomy, mechanics, redundancies, and braking performance, and to make sure the vehicles can be integrated into existing operations.

Parallel Systems plans to commercialize its third-generation vehicle, but it hasn’t announced if it has any commercial partners or provided a timeline for those plans.

Detailed image of the Parallel Systems vehicle

Parallel Systems

“We see the railroads as our customers,” Soule said. “We would provide them not just our hardware, but also the software to make the system work. And our vision is to coexist with legacy rail operations. We’re not trying to displace what’s already happening. We want to share that track with those traditional freight trains.”

Because less friction is created by steel meeting steel than rubber tires meeting asphalt, transport by rail is four to five times more energy efficient than moving goods on trucks. Electrifying trains, which typically run on diesel in the US, would reduce air pollution and further increase efficiency.

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This technology could also make rail transport safer by drastically decreasing the amount of time a train needs to stop, and help address both supply-chain bottlenecks and the truck-driver shortage, the company says.

How it works

Parallel Systems has designed rail vehicles that are individually powered and can travel alone on existing rail lines or join together in “platoons” for all or part of their journey.

The autonomous vehicles use a camera system to navigate and stop. The closely controlled rail network—as opposed to busy streets—provides an ideal environment to commercialize autonomous technology, the company argues.

Most of today’s diesel trains still have a conductor onboard, though technology known as Positive Train Control can handle much of a conductor’s tasks. Transfer switches, which guide trains to change tracks, are largely operated remotely, but some still need to be controlled manually.

Soule says only minimal infrastructure changes are required to make an autonomous system feasible. The company plans for the electric rail vehicles to travel on the same tracks as diesel freight trains and charge at terminals as they are loaded and unloaded. Any switches that are still manual will need to be updated and some charging capabilities would need to be built along routes that are longer than the electric rail vehicle’s range, he said.

While it won’t require much new infrastructure to deploy this technology on existing freight routes, Parallel Systems does eventually want to build out terminals of its own. But the company envisions these as micro terminals that would use less than 5% of the land it takes to build traditional terminals and can be located closer to shippers and customers.

Illustration of a Parallel Systems microterminal

A rendering of Parallel Systems' imagined microterminals. (Parallel Systems)

What’s next: Parallel Systems plans to add 60 engineers to the current team of 25 over the next 12 to 18 months as it builds out and tests its second generation vehicle.

Getting the legacy railroads on board will be the key to realizing Soule’s vision. Parallel Systems is working with railroad companies, though the startup would not share details about those relationships.

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