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California Startup Parallel Systems Emerges From Stealth, Aims to Disrupt the Rail Freight Industry with its Electric & Autonomous Platform

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【Summary】​A new California startup named Parallel Systems founded by former SpaceX engineers has emerged from stealth after announcing a $49.55 Series A funding round. The company is developing an electric rail platform for shipping containers, which replaces diesel powered locomotives and converts each freight car into individually self-propelled, autonomous and electric vehicles that can be linked together.

Eric Walz    Jan 19, 2022 1:30 PM PT
California Startup Parallel Systems Emerges From Stealth, Aims to Disrupt the Rail Freight Industry with its Electric & Autonomous Platform
The electric rail platform developed by Parallel Systems can move shipping containers autonomously on railroad tracks. (Photo: Parallel Systems)

A new California startup named Parallel Systems has emerged from stealth after announcing a $49.55 Series A funding round. The company is developing an electric rail platform for shipping containers, which replaces diesel powered locomotives and converts each freight car into an individually self-propelled, autonomous and electric vehicle that can be linked to another.

The $49.55 million Series A round was led by Venture-capital firm Anthos Capital with participation from Congruent Ventures, Riot Ventures and Embark Ventures.

Parallel Systems was founded in Jan 2020 by a team of former SpaceX engineers, including Soule, who spent 13 year at Elon Musk's aerospace company as the Head of Avionics before departing in July 2019.

The latest funding will be used to expand the team, build Parallel System's second-generation freight car mover and explore ways to integrate its technology and vehicles into real-world rail operations, CEO Matt Soule told TechCrunch.

Parallel Systems says its electric rail technology, which adds an electric propulsion system to a traditional railway freight car could help ease supply chains by moving freight more easily, as well as reduce harmful greenhouse-gas emissions from the $700 billion freight transport industry.

On road trucking accounts for 444 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or approximately 7%, of all CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, according to the 2019 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures.

Many companies are working on autonomous Class-8 trucks for the on-road shipping industry, including Waymo and TuSimple, but the same type of autonomous and electric technology can help make moving freight over rail more efficient and help to reduce truck congestion on highways. 

The electric rail freight platform accommodates the same 53 ft shipping containers that are off loaded onto trucks from ships at ports. Two containers can also be stacked on top of one another.  The platform is powered by a Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motor (PMSM) with a payload capacity of 128,000 lbs when two containers are stacked. 

Parallel says its battery-electric rail vehicles use just 25% of the energy compared to a semi-truck, and offer the lowest operational cost of any surface freight transportation mode, the company says. 

By using less energy, smaller batteries can be used, which put less strain on the grid, and lower charging infrastructure costs. In addition, Parallel aims to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by converting truck freight routes to electric rail. 

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Each freight container is propelled by an autonomous and electric platform. (Photo: Parallel Systems)

Moving autonomous vehicles over rail lines is also much easier from an engineering standpoint. The railroad's closed network offers a safer environment for autonomous freight trains, due to limited track access and centralized traffic control. 

The electric platform can also stop up to 10 times quicker than a standard train. Each is equipped with a long-range camera based perception system for monitoring the railway ahead, which can help increase safety around railway crossings.

Parallel's autonomous platoons can also help to reduce waiting times at railroad crossings, since they are shorter than traditional trains. In addition, the freight cars can quickly separate if blocking traffic, allowing emergency vehicles and the public to safely proceed through railroad crossings if needed, without delays. 

Two of Parallel's electric propulsion platforms are designed to accommodate a single shipping container, one at the front and one at the back. By linking up to ten freight cars together, the electric platforms push against each other to distribute the aerodynamic load among all of the freight containers, which saves battery power.

Parallel Systems envisions a "platoons" of 10 to 50 self-powered freight cars, Soule told CNBC

Traditional freight cars with no propulsion system need to be pulled by a diesel-powered locomotive. For rail freight operators, having as many cars connected as possible saves costs, this is why some freight trains are over a mile in length. But arriving at a depot while towing a mile or more chain of freight cars requires additional resources and massive space to unload them all.

The smaller platoons envisioned by Parallel Systems can be loaded at smaller depots closer to warehouses and other final destinations more easily, efficiently and much faster. The smaller platoons can also bypass busy switching yards and eliminate the need to manually sort and reassemble freight onto secondary trains, which can save hours or even days of transit time, according to Parallel.

The individually powered rail cars can also split off to multiple destinations while en route. The rail vehicles enable a near continuous flow of containers through terminals, reducing the waiting times associated with accumulating cargo and loading long trains, according to Parallel Systems.

In addition, the patent-pending platooning technology reduces aerodynamic drag to improve range, which can be up to 500 miles per charge. The platform's batteries can be charged in about an hour.

"We founded Parallel to allow railroads to open new markets, increase infrastructure utilization, and improve service to accelerate freight decarbonization," said Soule. "Parallel's competitive edge is our autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles, which are designed to move freight cleaner, faster, safer and more cost effectively than traditional trains or trucks."

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The electric rail platform accepts standard sized shipping containers for the more efficient movement of freight. (Photo: Parallel Systems)

Soule also told Forbes that the 140,000 miles of existing freight rail lines in the U.S. has a key advantage over highways, the railway bed can support much more weight than the legal limit of 80,000 pounds for a fully loaded semi. For developers of electric vehicles, weight is much more of a concern, since it impacts range. 

Parallel is also developing software that allows its platoons to safely integrate with existing rail operations, so all freight trains and transit interoperate. The software uses machine learning to optimize vehicle routing, traffic scheduling, energy consumption, as well as providing freight tracking while in transit.

Parallel Systems headquartered in Culver City, California, with an office in Palo Alto, California. The company is currently testing its autonomous-electric rail vehicles on a closed rail track in the Los Angeles area. 

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