Take 3 former SpaceX engineers, add a spark of inspiration, and voila! A new idea in zero emissions transportation is born. The trio calls their new startup Parallel Systems, and its primary claim to fame is a battery-powered electric train platform. Put two of them together, set a standard shipping container on top of them, and you have an autonomous freight car with none of the emissions of a diesel locomotive.
Freight trains are a lot more energy efficient than trucks. Moving one unit of freight by train takes only 25% of the energy required to move it by truck, CEO and founder Matt Soule tells CNBC. “But because of how rail is architected, it has its operational and economic limits. If you can break through those barriers and allow rail to serve more of these markets — that’s the opportunity.”
Traditional freight trains can be 200 cars long or more. It is cheaper for railroads to have one long train rather than two or three shorter ones. But parking and unloading those 200 car trains is a big chore that requires big terminals. In places like southern California where space is scare, the cost of land for those terminals offsets some of those lower costs.
Autonomous platoons of electric trains 10 to 50 cars long could improve train terminal logistics and lower those costs, Soule says. “Since the vehicles self-position under the crane and self-clear, the terminal dwell time and required land capacity is much smaller,” says Dean Wise, a former vice president of network strategy at BNSF Railway who advises the company.
The company is just in the prototype stage and has no customers or revenue yet. With a new $50 million funding round led by Anthos Capital just completed, Parallel Systems will build a fleet of electric rail cars, ramp up advanced testing programs, and grow the team, which currently consists of about 25 engineers recruited from tech companies like Google, Tesla, and Uber. Parallel Systems has built several prototypes and tested its first prototype vehicle on a closed track in the Los Angeles area.
Electric Train Cars Can Slash Emissions
Transitioning rail freight from diesel to electric power could play a major part in reducing the carbon emissions. Transportation accounts for 29% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Almost a quarter of those emissions come from medium and heavy duty trucks.
Because the electric train platforms will use only a quarter as much energy as a long haul truck, their batteries only need 25% of the storage capacity that would be required for a battery-powered electric truck. Soule says the company hasn’t decided what kind of batteries to use, but is looking at technologies from utility scale storage.
A Lightbulb Moment
Soule says it’s encouraging to see railroad industry veterans react to the prototypes. “No matter how many PowerPoint presentations we give them, as soon as they come see it in person, you can see the lightbulb come on,” Soule said.
Dean Wise says the former SpaceX engineers have latched onto an idea that others in the industry had been imagining. “At BNSF, we had brainstormed that a self-powered autonomous rail vehicle would be a game-changer, dramatically improving rail’s ability to compete with the highway, and defend against the looming challenge of autonomous trucks — now acknowledged by most as a matter of when, not if.”
So far, Parallel Systems has had calls with 30 “major companies” in the shipping industry, including class one railroads, short line rail holding companies, motor carriers, ocean carriers, ports, and industrial shippers, Wise says. “The clincher for me was that these conversations were universally positive and uncovered additional value, refinements, and potential applications, leading to several companies seeking strategic development partnerships and investment opportunities with Parallel Systems.”
Lower shipping costs and lower emissions — the perfect recipe for a more sustainable future.
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