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Former SpaceX Engineers Team Up to Replace Trains With Autonomous, Electric Rail Vehicles

With almost $50 million raised so far and the desire to reimagine the railroad system, a team of three former SpaceX engineers founded Parallel Systems, a California-based company that wants to make autonomous, electric rail vehicles that move freight.
Autonomous Electric Rail Vehicle 6 photos
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While the trucking industry in the United States amounts to $700 billion, according to Parallel Systems, the startup wants to convert as much as possible of it to rail, arguing that autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles bring more advantages, in terms of cost, safety, speed, and emissions.

Unlike traditional freight trains, Parallel Systems’ fleet will consist of railcars that are individually powered and can join together to form so-called platoons. They can also split off to cover multiple destinations while they’re en route. These platoons don’t have to be miles long and accumulate large quantities of freight. Instead, they’ll be shorter than conventional trains and they’ll be able to split at railroad crossings if they have to, for instance, if they risk blocking traffic or if they have to allow emergency vehicles to pass. They’ll also travel over shorter distances if needed.

The rail terminals will therefore be less costly to build, as they don’t have to be large to service long trains, taking up hundreds of acres of land. These micro terminals would also be built closer to shippers and customers.

As for the capabilities of the autonomous, electric vehicles, they’ll have a range of up to 500 miles (800 km) on a charge, and charging them will take just one hour. They’ll have a payload capacity of up to 128,000 lb. (58,000 kg), which is 2.8 times larger than the one of a semi-truck. The rail cars will be fully autonomous, using a bi-directional, camera-based perception system and redundant braking. Parallel Systems says they will be able to stop up to 10 times quicker than a train.

With them using 25 percent less energy than a semi-truck, that also means reduced charging infrastructure costs, because they’ll be equipped with smaller batteries, which puts less strain on the grid.

Parallel Systems is currently testing its autonomous rail vehicles on a closed track in the L.A. area. You can take a better look at how the whole system will work, in the video below.



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