Autonomous rail vehicle concept secures 4,5 million dollars for testing

The autonomous battery-powered rail vehicles designed and developed by Parallel Systems will receive 4,5 million US dollars from the Department of Energy of the USA. The autonomous rail vehicles built by former SpaceX engineers will use the funds for a 29 month testing period before being released to the rail freight market.

The funding is part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) initiative by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Parallel System’s rail vehicles will be assessed during the testing period by DOE’s s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center (RailTEC) at the University of Illinois. Moreover, the tests will take place in collaboration with the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), an American Association of Railroads subsidiary.

Testing objectives

In TTCI’s facilities, the rail vehicles will undergo tests concerning their track performance under diverse conditions. “The tests will benchmark the new vehicle dynamic performance against the requirements of traditional freight rail vehicles,” says the company.

NREL AND RailTEC will help model the vehicles and system performance on their behalf. On top of that, they will evaluate the concept’s energy efficiency and environmental impact to see if and how it differentiates from traditional rail freight methods.

The prototype autonomous rail vehicle. Source: Parallel Systems

Parallel Systems is excited to enter the testing period, which it considers a milestone towards deploying autonomous vehicles in the rail freight market. “ The funds awarded from the Department of Energy will help us achieve our mission by supporting Parallel through our advanced testing phase. This critical step will enable us to move trucking freight to clean rail and accelerate the decarbonisation of the entire freight industry,” said Matt Soule, Co-Founder and CEO at Parallel.

How do autonomous vehicles work?

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

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 diminished because the vehicles can separate if they are blocking traffic.

Additionally, Parallel’s architecture will also bypass congested switching yards, 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.

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Author: Nikos Papatolios

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

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