Three former SpaceX engineers plan to develop the first-of-its-kind self-powered electric rail vehicles
Combining the flexibility benefits of trucking with the safety advantages of railway systems, an early-stage, Los Angeles-based startup is working on a quest to revolutionize the future of freight by converting part of the $700 billion U.S. trucking industry to rail.
“We founded Parallel to allow railroads to open new markets, increase infrastructure utilization, and improve service to accelerate freight decarbonization,” said Co-founder and CEO of Parallel Systems Matt Soule in a press release.
Parallel Systems’ 25-man team consists of former staff from top Silicon Valley firms such as Google, Tesla, Uber, and SpaceX. The company is currently in the pre-revenue, prototype stage. In January, Parallel raised $50 million in a Series A funding round led by Anthos Capital with investments from Congruent Ventures, Riot Ventures, and Embark Ventures. The funds will be used to build a fleet of rail vehicles, execute advanced testing programs, and hire more software engineers.
“Today, trucks are responsible for moving most of the nation’s freight by miles. Moving a portion of that freight volume to autonomous battery-electric rail will help alleviate highway congestion, improve road safety, reduce road wear and tear, provide shippers with more cost-effective transportation, and provide environmental health and safety benefits by reducing GHG trucking emissions,” Soule said.
Much of the publicity surrounding Parallel Systems lies in its ability to dramatically reduce the freight industry’s carbon emissions.
Today, transportation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the U.S. Within the sector, almost a quarter of the emissions stem from medium and heavy-duty trucks.
Parallel’s zero-emissions vehicles can dramatically cut freight transport’s carbon footprint. If the entirety of the nation’s trucks were taken off the road and converted to electric rail, 444 million tons of carbon dioxide could be eliminated each year. The figure is equivalent to 7% of all annual GHG emissions in the U.S, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency released in December 2021.
Not only are the electric vehicles a much cleaner alternative to truck transportation, but the battery-powered railcars are also much more energy efficient than traditional road freight. Thanks to its superior aerodynamics and lightweight design, the system uses just 25% of the energy of a semi-truck. The lower energy consumption means the self-propelled wheel units can travel distances up to 500 miles on one charge and fully recharge in less than one hour. The Parallel System also features an advanced payload capacity of up to 128,000 lbs., which is nearly three times greater than that of a semi-truck, according to the company.
Parallel’s product is also extremely flexible. Separate self-powered “railcar pods” can carry standard shipping containers as a single or double-stacked load. The vehicles can link together to form platoons or travel as individual units. Because each railcar is individually powered, the train cars can split off from each other while en route to travel to different destinations. The self-assembling nature of the pods means cargo can be transported faster and to a wider range of destinations by more diverse routes.
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Mobile shipping containers are also safer than traditional trains. The patent-pending platooning technology hosts a bi-directional camera-based perception system that can rapidly detect incoming vehicles or hazards along the tracks. If needed, Parallel’s platoons can brake up to 10 times faster than a train. The speed of the platoons is also automatically adjusted based on the track conditions.
The fully-automated system boasts all of these impressive features while operating within the closed boundaries of rail.
“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,” Soule said.
He claims his company can help ease current supply-chain strains and solve the trucking industry’s 80,000-driver shortage.
This is because unlike traditional rail freight, Parallel’s platoons do not need to be as long. Whereas traditional trains can span up to 3 miles and consist of 200 cars or more, Parallel’s self-configuring vehicles can assemble and disassemble upon request and therefore do not depend on length to make service economical. Essentially, the startup has figured out a way to improve the unit economics of freight deliveries over smaller distances.
This means that the rail cars can operate without the traditional constraints of existing train architecture. Cargo can be loaded or unloaded at train terminals in significantly less time, a feature that can help clear congestion in busy seaside ports and urban warehouses. The result is improved train terminal logistics and lower costs for operators.
In addition, the freight transportation solution can bring more business to rail by making use of the nation’s expansive rail network. Despite the existence of 140,000 miles of track, Parallel estimates that less than 3% of the nation’s current railroad network is occupied by active trains at any given moment. Parallel’s zero-emissions technology can help reinvigorate the American rail industry by optimizing rail use.
Finally, the proprietary architecture has the potential to alleviate pressure on highway infrastructure and address the nation’s dire trucking shortage. According to data from the American Trucking Association (ATA), the sector is short of over 80,000 commercial truck drivers, particularly in the long-haul trucking market. That figure could balloon to 160,000 by 2030, ATA said. Including projected retirements, the trucking industry is looking at a 1.1 million driver shortage over the next ten years.
By shifting some of the nation’s existing freight to electric rail, Parallel Systems’ next-generation connected fleet can help address a number of pressing issues in the country ranging from the current supply-labor crunch of professional truck drivers to rampant congestion in busy American highways and ports. Most importantly, the autonomous train platoons could usher in a new era of rail – and transport – decarbonization.
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Nathalie Voit is a freelance content creator and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is an alumni of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.