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Autonomous, Battery-powered Rail Cars May Boost Rail Freight Capacity

Parallel Systems, a start-up created by three former SpaceX engineers, has released details of a prototype that could bring autonomous, battery powered technology to the world of railroad freight. Parallel Systems wants to add electric powered traction motors to every car on the train. It is how many electric passenger trains operate, but this system that has been slow to migrate to the freight world.

Then they will go a step further, though by adding a package of sensors that allow it to operate autonomously. As a large portion of the world’s freight is shipped via 20-foot (6m) containers, Parallel Systems is using the containers themselves to complete the car, bridging the gap between the sets of wheels at either end of a train car, also known as bogies.


The way they envision it working is that two vehicles position themselves far enough apart to support the container, which is lowered by a crane. The vehicles then use their short- and long-range cameras to navigate the rails. As each rail vehicle has everything it needs, it does not have to be part of a long train. In theory, one container supported by two Parallel Systems vehicles could move from origin to destination by itself. In reality, they will likely end up traveling in platoons to reduce wind resistance and increase efficiency.

Unlike large US freight trains which could be up to 10,000 ft (3 km) long pulling hundreds of cars, Parallels trains would be much smaller between 10-50 cars or 200-1200 ft (60-366 m) in length. This system will allow more end point destinations for freight, however a stumbling block to the idea is the need to renew and, in many cases, build new tracks to get the most out of the idea of more distributed freight network.