Each day, thousands of trucks leave the shipping ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach hauling containers full of furniture, clothing, electronics, and other imports from Asia. The trucks, running on diesel, are a major source of pollution. A new startup called Parallel Systems wants to help transport more goods by rail instead—and to do that, it’s reinventing how trains work.
Founded by three former SpaceX engineers, the company is currently testing autonomous, zero-emissions rail cars that can drive on tracks independently. While a typical freight train today is miles long, the new rail cars can move together in smaller groups, making the system as affordable as driving trucks. Through a new grant from the Department of Energy, the company will soon begin testing the technology’s performance, including how much it can improve energy efficiency.
With the $4.4 million grant, the startup will embark on a 29-month-long testing program. The engineers will use the data from those tests to build a third-generation design that can come to market, which could have a big effect on the environmental impact of the shipping industry—in the U.S., trucks emit more than 440 million metric tons of CO2 each year. When he was at SpaceX, Matt Soule, cofounder and CEO of Parallel Systems, was head of avionics, the electronics used in aircraft and spacecraft. But he was interested in the carbon footprint of goods transportation on Earth, and saw the potential in freight trains. (Cofounders John Howard and Ben Stabler also came from SpaceX.)
Even when trains run on diesel, they’re far more efficient than trucks. “It’s about a quarter of the energy to move something over a rail as it is by truck over roadways,” Soule says. That’s both because it takes less energy for a train wheel to move on a rail and because trains can travel in groups. But right now, trains are typically used only for large volumes of freight moving long distances. “Rail requires very, very large scale to hit unit economics that are competitive with trucks,” he says. Current trains take up a huge amount of space when they’re loaded and unloaded, and can sit in place all day.
If trains don’t have many cars, the system is too expensive to operate. But Parallel’s autonomous rail cars can move quickly through a rail yard, taking off and forming a platoon with other independent cars as soon as they’re loaded. “Within a couple of hours, we’d be loaded, and then we’re out of there for the next platoon to come in,” Soule says. The system can also use “micro terminals,” smaller facilities for loading and unloading, that can be built closer to final customers. At ports, the new approach makes it easier to load and unload shipping containers directly onto rail so that fewer trucks are needed to move containers.
Right now, rail is limited at ports because of the amount of space that it takes up; trucks often have to carry containers to rail yards at different locations. By working directly at the ports, the company estimates that it can eliminate 2.8 million metric tons of CO2 pollution a year, along with nitrous oxide and PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) pollution that affects the health of communities living nearby.
While self-driving cars are challenging to build, automation is simpler for rail since trains run on a fixed track, and dispatchers already control trains to make sure that only one has access to a track at any given time. The new rail cars can stop as much as 10 times faster than a traditional train, which also makes it possible for a system of cameras and software to trigger the brakes if a car or other obstacle is detected on the tracks. En route, the self-driving rail cars can split up to travel to different destinations without visiting switching yards, the places where freight is put on secondary trains. Eliminating that step can save hours or even days, making rail a faster option for transporting goods.
Electric trucks aren’t yet practical for longer-distance trips because the batteries need to be charged too often; Volvo’s newest electric semi can travel 275 miles on a charge, whereas the rail cars can travel around 500 miles on a single battery charge. Because rail is more efficient, the new electric rail cars can also use smaller batteries than an electric semi. “That’s a real advantage that you see in the initial cost of hardware,” Soule says. “That’s also an advantage in terms of operating costs, or how much of the underlying cost is going towards energy.”
Parallel Systems, which announced in January that it had raised nearly $50 million in a Series A round of funding, has been testing the technology on a track in California over the past year. The company’s founders don’t envision replacing current rail systems, but they want to make better use of existing rail infrastructure—right now, they estimate, less than 3% of the train tracks in the U.S. are in use at any given time. Conversely, moving more freight from trucks to rail can reduce traffic on highways. In California, trucks are a major source of bottlenecks on freeways.