Do Electric Trains Dream Of Autonomous Mobility? Yes, They Do.

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Electric trains have been much in the news lately. Adding to all the hoopla today is the US startup Parallel Systems, which has just busted out of stealth mode with a recipe for replacing thousands of trucks on the highways with zero emission short-haul autonomous electric railcars. The company sports a leading lineup of three former SpaceX electronics and battery experts, so let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Autonomous Electric Railcars

The idea of electric locomotives is beginning to catch on, but Parallel Systems is calling its version a “rail vehicle” because it has no resemblance to a locomotive. Think of it as a train without locomotives, and the picture comes into sharper focus.

Leveraging the power of autonomous electric mobility has been the dream of automakers, and Parallel Systems has an additional secret weapon up its sleeve. Unlike roadways, access to railways is limited to vehicles that are designed to run on rails. When locomotives switch tracks, the switching can be done by a remote operator. The seeds of autonomous driving are already built into railway systems, along with safety advantages over open-road driving.

So, What Good Is An Autonomous Electric Railcar?

Glad you asked. The zero emission, electric, autonomous rail vehicle model gives Parallel Systems the ability to break trains down into their component parts, enabling each railcar to split off individually or form new platoons with others.

Configuring a train as a string of individually capable autonomous units opens up a world of possibilities, especially coupled with zero emission, low noise operation.

Parallel Systems offers the following use cases:

  • Micro terminals: Low capital expenditure, zero-emissions terminals built closer to shippers and customers that require less than 5% of the land compared to a traditional terminal  
  • Direct to seaport: Enables loading and unloading containers directly from port crane onto rail; addresses supply chain issues by reducing congestion in seaports by eliminating the need for storage within the port complex; reduces yard truck usage; creates shuttle system to inland ports and terminals 
  • Direct to warehouse: Connects rail to adjacent factories and warehouses, brings containers directly to the facility, eliminating transportation mode changes and short distance truck delivery costs; increases weight capacity as rail can sustain more tonnage than trucks 

If you can think of any more, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Here Comes Another Solution To The Labor Crunch

This is where things get interesting. The US railways made the jump from steam to diesel-electric locomotives back in the 20th century, enabling train owners to cut costs dramatically by saving labor in all aspects of steam locomotion, including driving them as well as tending them en route with water and fuel.

The Parallel Systems electric rail vehicles may not result in so much drama on the labor end. Diesel-electric crews are relatively small, and some of that labor savings could be made up by hiring additional system operators.

However, that’s just the potential impact on railway systems labor. The impact on the trucking industry is where the rubber hits the road.

If you recall that thing about a supply chain bottleneck, an estimated shortage of 80,000 truck drivers in the US is taking part of the blame. That figure comes from the American Trucking Association, which also estimates that the shortage will double to 160,000 by 2030 unless something is done.

That’s just for starters. Add in retirements and whatnot, and the trucking industry is aiming for 1 million new recruits by 2030 to fill the gap.

ATA has recognized that its aging, overwhelmingly male workforce needs to diversify. However, obstacles abound, especially in the area of long haul trucking.

That’s where Parallel Systems comes in. The company does aim to replace conventional locomotives on the rails, but it is also focusing like a laser on trucks.

“Our business model is to give railroads the tools to convert some of the $700 billion U.S. trucking industry to 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,” says Matt Soule, CEO and a co-founder of Parallel Systems.

For those of you keeping score at home, Soule was the Head of Avionics at SpaceX for 13 years. The other co-founders are John Howard (formerly Head of Batteries at SpaceX) and Ben Stabler (formerly Head of Avionics Software, and lead engineer for motorized actuator electronics at SpaceX).

Trains Vs. Trucks

If there are any doubts about SpaceX’ target competition, the company laid them to rest in a press release this morning.

“Parallel’s unique system eliminates the constraints of traditional train architecture to compete more directly with the flexibility benefits of trucking,” the company explained, and then it really piled on:

“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.”

That thing about road wear and tear brings up an interesting point. As much as we love zero emission EVs for being so eco-friendly, tires are a weak link. Researchers are beginning to map out the role of vehicle tires in contributing to microplastic pollution, and the picture ain’t pretty. You can zero emission all you want, but the rubber is still going to hit the road.

That’s another reason to love e-bicycles even more, but that’s a whole new kettle of fish.

Autonomous Electric Rail Vehicles & Environmental Justice

Circling back around to that thing about decentralizing rail yards, Parallel Systems also suggests that its self-driving railcars could reduce if not eliminate the need to expand the nation’s stock of conventional rail yards, which are large, noisy, and typically located in and around communities of color.

“Parallel’s proprietary architecture allows for smaller, cleaner, and less expensive terminals that can be built closer to shippers and customers, effectively opening up new markets and reducing last-mile delivery costs,” Parallel Systems enthuses.

“Today, traditional rail terminals have to be large enough to service long trains, and are each built on hundreds of acres of land. These large terminals are expensive, remote, and result in slower delivery times,” the company reminds us.

As for existing rail operations, Parallel Systems notes that it is developing interoperability software to integrate its space age railcars with existing systems.

“The fully-automated connected system leverages machine learning to optimize vehicle routing, traffic scheduling and energy consumption. The result will provide customers with hassle-free, best-in-class service and freight tracking,” they explain.

Apparently the company’s pitch has paid off. Parallel Systems was launched in January 2020 and it came out of stealth mode with a bang earlier today. It announced $49.55 million in Series A funding, with the round led by Anthos Capital. Congruent Ventures, Riot Ventures, and Embark Ventures were among those investing. Including $3.6 million in seed funds, that brings the total to $53.15 million.

Trainspotter alert: the Parallel Systems battery-electric rail vehicle is undergoing tests on a close track somewhere around Los Angeles. If you spot one, send a pic.

Check out more railway coverage on CleanTechnica.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image (rendering): Battery-electric rail vehicle for zero emission shipping, via Parallel Systems.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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