Innovation: former SpaceX engineers design railcars of the future

Parallel Systems, a company founded by former SpaceX engineers, has raised nearly 47 million euros in funding to build autonomous battery-powered rail vehicles that move containers. The new engineering work aims to make rail freight transport more flexible than ever. 

The funds that the start-up collected will be used to build a fleet of rail vehicles, execute advanced testing programs and grow the team. The company – in their own words – came out of stealth mode on Wednesday and has revealed its innovative plans.

Their plans are very innovative, while their background looks appealing and convincing of the project’s potential. Their approach reminds a bit of a project developed by HHLA and HypeloopTT, where the two companies aim to transport freight containers autonomously using single high-speed capsules and the breakthrough hyperloop technology.

The prototype autonomous rail vehicle. Source: Parallel Systems

Modal shift tool

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

Parallel’s vehicle architecture combines innovative software and hardware with the historic rail industry to increase the utilisation of the rails. The 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 platooning technology is currently pending for a patent. According to the company, the railroad’s closed network is ideal for the safe and early commercialisation of autonomous technology due to limited track access and centralised traffic control.

Parallel Platoon Architecture. Source: Parallel Systems

More efficient and flexible

The rail vehicles are more flexible than traditional trains. According to Parallel Systems, the platoons do not need to accumulate large quantities of freight to make service economical, unlike conventional freight trains. The system can support service at a range of distances, from across a city to across the country. This enables more flexible service and a wider range of routes, reducing the waiting times associated with loading trains that are miles long. It also means that waiting times for other traffic at level crossings is reduced because the vehicles can separate if they are blocking traffic.

Bypassing yards

Platoons can split in motion and route directly to multiple destinations. Parallel’s architecture will also bypass congested switching yards, which are historically used to manually sort and reassemble freight onto secondary trains, which could save hours, or even days, of transit time, says the company. The ‘near-continuous flow of containers’ through terminals should result in faster delivery times and higher quality of service.

Co-founder Soule: “the Parallel system can also help alleviate the supply chain crisis by enabling low cost and regular freight movement 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-effective than traditional trains or trucks”.

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Author: Nikos Papatolios

Nikos Papatolios is editor of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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