Former SpaceX engineers are building a Tesla for freight trains

Trains could also be an previous know-how, however they are nonetheless outstanding machines—working with roughly four times the vitality effectivity of semitrucks driving on a freeway.

Nevertheless, over the previous a number of a long time, railways have been working towards themselves. To compete with semis, they’ve ceded shorter deliveries. As an alternative, railways have doubled down on long-haul shipments of 1,000 miles or extra. And to maximise effectivity on lengthy routes, practice firms have merely stored making trains longer . . . and longer. At the moment, it’s comparatively frequent for trains to be nearly 3 miles long.

[Image: courtesy Parallel Systems]Which is why when SpaceX engineer Matt Soule was mulling his subsequent startup and a random video of a freight practice popped up on YouTube, he realized one thing apparent: If we need to curb greenhouse fuel emissions, we must be shifting extra shipments to rail from vans. However how?

Three years later, with $50 million of Sequence A funding in hand, he’s sharing his resolution. Now the CEO of Parallel Techniques, Soule—alongside two cofounders who each led main engineering initiatives at SpaceX—is remodeling particular person freight practice automobiles into autonomous electrical autos.


From left: Cofounders Ben Stabler, Matt Soule, and John Howard of Parallel Techniques. [Photo: courtesy Parallel Systems]Parallel Techniques’s invention is a modular, motorized set of practice wheels. Cargo containers are positioned on prime of the wheels by a crane, and the wheels can drive this practice automobile as much as 500 miles to wherever on the observe.

The corporate’s potential influence is in its means to revamp the best way freight is transported, shifting shipments that would have been delivered by truck to a extra environment friendly practice. Understanding that influence requires dipping your toe into the 143,000 miles of U.S. railway.

[Image: courtesy Parallel Systems]

How autonomous rail automobiles might remedy a community downside

Dean Smart is the previous vice chairman of community technique at BNSF Railway (aka the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., one of many largest railway firms in North America). He’s additionally one in all a number of established trade advisers who Parallel Techniques has introduced in to assist navigate the comparatively closed trade of freight transport.

“You truly are not going to get into this sport except the railroads themselves are going to ask you in,” Smart explains. “The rail trade in North America is mainly privately held and privately funded . . . they usually can say, ‘We don’t like this [idea].’”

Parallel Techniques plans to earn a living by offering its know-how to the railroads, relatively than competing with them. In the meantime, railroads earn a living by charging purchasers to maneuver their items (and to interrupt your coronary heart, one in all their hottest money cows is actually coal). Within the U.S. and throughout North America, five regional companies operate the vast majority of railways—and also you would possibly acknowledge them by their distinctive practice engines. Union Pacific is the biggest, with routes from the Midwest to the West. BNSF has a comparable footprint, however reaches north the place UP reaches south. Then you could have CSX and Norfolk Southern from the Midwest out East. And pushing north? That’s the territory of Canadian Nationwide.

[Image: courtesy Parallel Systems]Smart calls this association “co-op-etition.” The identical observe normal is shared throughout North America, that means this community is totally interoperable for all trains on the continent. Nevertheless, as a result of the community is break up amongst firms, they typically should work collectively, handing off cargo from one to a different for it to succeed in its last vacation spot (and as a additional complication, freight strains share the same track with passenger strains).


[Image: courtesy Parallel Systems]This technique drives what Smart calls the core “irony of the freight enterprise.” Railroads earn a living shifting large trains lengthy distances. Nevertheless, most freight is moved shorter distances (fewer than 1,000 miles) by vans. (Vehicles carried 58% of all freight in 2017, whereas trains adopted in second place at 16.2%. In the meantime, the common truck supply dropped from 800 miles to 500 miles between 2005 and 2019.)

Whereas lengthy trains are worthwhile for the practice firms, they’re not terribly environment friendly for anybody else. An extended practice is filled with items that must be delivered to all kinds of various locations as soon as they attain a depot—that’s when these items are handed off to semitrucks. To not point out that parking a 3-mile-long practice vastly limits the place it may well go. Moreover, practice automobiles are typically parked for days whereas they wait for different automobiles to be loaded and unloaded in order that they’ll transfer, as this big caterpillar, to their subsequent vacation spot.

[Image: courtesy Parallel Systems]In idea, a Parallel Techniques automobile has no such limitations. As soon as a automobile is loaded, it may well merely drive to its vacation spot. The fact is that a overwhelming majority of tracks are single-lane solely, and so single-car trains would possibly make for an inefficient use of that observe. Moreover, even Parallel Techniques trains are extra environment friendly operating in small platoons relatively than as one-off automobiles.

Soule estimates the longest Parallel Techniques practice would possibly run a half-mile lengthy. However with shorter lengths, practice yards themselves will be re-architected to have smaller footprints and match extra locations in our infrastructure. Parallel’s platoons may break up themselves in half if blocking an intersection for too lengthy. As a result of the practice automobiles don’t even couple collectively (as an alternative, they simply push themselves bumper to bumper), it’s simple for them to interrupt rank and let highway autos move via their center.

[Image: courtesy Parallel Systems]Parallel’s trains would possibly cruise down the usual, main railways. However because the platoon approaches its vacation spot, the rail automobiles might break off from each other onto short-haul tracks. Consider short-haul tracks because the final mile of practice supply. These strains, which run lower than 500 miles in size, have been principally deserted by main gamers years in the past as a result of they didn’t match the practice’s enterprise mannequin. But quick hauls join main railways, they usually can drive proper into a metropolis and even a manufacturing unit. These use instances won’t make sense for a 3-mile-long practice, however they could make a complete lot of sense for a three-car practice.

“We will do distinctive issues like take a container from a port to a warehouse . . . and also you by no means should put it on a truck,” Soule says. “And since you don’t should put it on a truck, you may load extra weight.” Parallel Techniques automobiles can carry 128,000 kilos, or 2.8 occasions greater than a semitruck. Additionally they recharge in an hour: With out being plugged in or pulled off the observe, the wheels will be recharged to drive one other 500 miles.

[Image: courtesy Parallel Systems]

Autonomous trains are simpler to construct than autonomous automobiles

Maybe self-driving, environment-saving trains that squeeze into our present railway infrastructure sound too good to be true. Certainly, anybody following railroads is aware of that short-haul strains have been proposed as a resolution to the trade’s woes for years. However Soule factors out that in comparison with building autonomous electrical autos for highways, building and managing autonomous electrical trains is way easier. As a result of rails are easier. Trains keep on a observe with out a steering wheel. Additionally they don’t want to fret about responding to random visitors. In contrast to roads, the place just about anybody can drive wherever at any time, railways are tightly managed and scheduled. In truth, some passenger trains have pushed themselves since the Sixties. Parallel Techniques is solely pushing that autonomy to the person automobile degree.

The know-how isn’t prepared for market but. Parallel Techniques has been testing a prototype since November 2020 on 50 miles of observe in California. The corporate is at present ending up its second-generation prototype, which it plans to start testing this yr. Till that testing is finished, the corporate is declining to forecast its business launch. Although don’t be stunned to see extra pilot testing, carried out at the side of railway strains, first. That stated, if Parallel Techniques can transfer quick sufficient, maybe it may well get forward of the electrical semitruck revolution. Tesla lately delayed the provision of its electrical semi, whereas California has targeted 2045 for its zero-emission truck mandate.

“There’s a lot of speak about making vans autonomous, and a lot of speak about electrical vans. And plenty of railroads are questioning what their future [is] going to appear to be when these are realities,” Soule says. “We expect vans are going to remain, however what we’re doing is making an attempt to shift the steadiness.”