Former SpaceX engineers raise nearly US$50m to build autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles

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Parallel Systems, a company founded by former SpaceX engineers to reimagine the railroad system, has raised US$49.55m in Series A funds to build autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles that move freight.

The funds will be used to build a fleet of rail vehicles, execute advanced testing programs, and grow the team. The company, which came out of stealth mode today (January 19), has raised US$53.15m to date, including US$3.6m in seed funds.

Parallel is currently testing its autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles on a closed track in the Los Angeles area.

“We founded Parallel to allow railroads to open new markets, increase infrastructure utilization, and improve service to accelerate freight decarbonization,” said Matt Soule, co-founder, and CEO of Parallel Systems. “Our business model is to give railroads the tools to convert some of the US$700bn US trucking industry to rail. The Parallel system can also help alleviate the supply chain crisis by enabling low cost and regular movement of freight in and out of ports. 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.”

Parallel’s patent-pending vehicle architecture combines software and hardware with the historic rail industry to increase the utilization of today’s railroads. The company’s autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles load and transport standard shipping containers as a single or double stacked load. The railcars, which are individually powered, can join to form “platoons”, or split off to multiple destinations while enroute. The railroad’s closed network is ideal for the safe and early commercialization of autonomous technology due to limited track access and centralized traffic control.

According to Parallel, the rail vehicles are also more flexible than traditional trains. Unlike traditional freight trains, Parallel’s platoons do not need to accumulate large quantities of freight to make service economical, which enables more responsive service and a wider range of routes. This dramatically reduces the waiting times associated with loading trains that are miles long.

The Parallel rail vehicle uses a battery-electric permanent magnet synchronous motor and has a range of up to 500 miles between charge. Charging takes less than one hour. It is also fully autonomous with a bi-directional camera-based perception system and can carry up to 128,000 lbs in a double stack configuration.

The patent-pending platoon technology features self-propelled rail cars that push against each other to distribute the aerodynamic load. Parallel 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 noted.

Parallel aims to dramatically reduce the freight industry’s carbon emissions. 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 US Environmental Protection Agency figures. Parallel aims to significantly reduce GHG emissions by converting trucking freight to electric rail.

Parallel’s system also aims to eliminate the constraints of traditional train architecture to compete more directly with the flexibility benefits of trucking. Today, trucks are responsible for moving most of the nation’s freight by miles. Moving a portion of that freight volume to autonomous battery-electric rail will help alleviate highway congestion, improve road safety, reduce road wear and tear, provide shippers with more cost-effective transportation, and provide environmental health and safety benefits by reducing GHG trucking emissions.

Parallel's proprietary architecture allows for smaller, cleaner, and less expensive terminals that can be built closer to shippers and customers, effectively opening new markets, and reducing last-mile delivery costs.

*The funding round was led by Anthos Capital, and includes investments from Congruent Ventures, Riot Ventures, Embark Ventures, and others.