Rail Looks to Autonomous Battery Vehicles to Boost Efficiency, Compete with Road Transport

Parallel Systems, a company founded by former SpaceX engineers to create autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles, has been selected to receive over $4.4 million from the Department of Energy (DOE) as part of its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) initiative. The ARPA-E program, developed to advance high-potential, high-impact energy technologies, will fund a 29-month advanced testing program with Parallel’s autonomous, battery-powered rail vehicles and a range of partners starting in the second quarter of 2022.

Parallel’s autonomous rail vehicles will be evaluated for track-worthiness in Pueblo, CO at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), a subsidiary of the American Association of Railroads.

Earlier, Parallel Systems raised $49.55 million in Series A funds to build autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles that move freight in January this year.

“We founded Parallel to allow railroads to open new markets, increase infrastructure utilization, and improve service to accelerate freight decarbonization,” said Matt Soule, Co-founder and CEO, Parallel Systems. “Our business model is to give railroads the tools to convert some of the $700 billion U.S. 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.”

Parallel’s patent-pending vehicle architecture combines innovative software and hardware with the historic rail industry to increase the utilization of today’s railroads. The company’s autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles load and transport standard shipping containers as a single or double stacked load. The railcars, which are individually powered, can join together to form “platoons” or split off to multiple destinations while en route. The railroad’s closed network is ideal for the safe and early commercialization of autonomous technology due to limited track access and centralized traffic control.

The rail vehicles are more flexible than traditional trains. Unlike traditional freight trains, Parallel’s platoons do not need to accumulate large quantities of freight to make service economical, which enables more responsive service and a wider range of routes. This dramatically reduces the waiting times associated with loading trains that are miles long. The system can support service at a range of distances, from across a city to across the country. Parallel’s unique architecture will also bypass congested switching yards, which are historically used to manually sort and reassemble freight onto secondary trains—saving hours, or even days, of transit time. The near continuous flow of containers through terminals results in greater asset utilization, faster delivery times, and higher quality of service.