Parallel Systems begins testing autonomous battery-electric rail vehicle and control system

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Parallel Systems, a company founded by former SpaceX engineers, has begun testing its new autonomous battery-electric rail vehicle and proprietary autonomous train control system, as it works toward developing a solution to move freight cleaner, faster, safer, and more cost effectively than traditional trains or trucks.

The firm also revealed that it plans to build three more autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles in 2023.

The project is being funded by a US$4,438,897 initiative from the Department of Energy (DOE) as part of its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) initiative. The purpose of the program is to manufacture Parallel zero-emissions rail vehicles to test how well they will integrate with real-world railroad operations.

Additionally, the funding will be used to model the system at scale to evaluate supply chain resilience and reduction in energy usage, and associated emissions.

The first new vehicle related to this program was built and began field testing of hardware and software at Parallel’s Southern California test track in November 2022. The vehicle has already completed preliminary testing for emergency stopping, thermal capabilities, braking performance, GPS, communications, and towing. The preliminary tests results correlate well with design expectations. 

Parallel has also begun development of its proprietary train control system that will be interoperable with existing positive train control (PTC) systems, which are designed to prevent train-to-train collisions and over-speed derailments. Parallel’s integration allows the system to operate alongside traditional freight rail operations. The company is also building a prototype of the perception system, which is planned to provide the future capability to detect hazards and initiate braking events.  

“We have been laser focused on testing, validating and iterating our technology as these are essential steps to preparing our technology for track readiness,” said Matt Soule, co-founder and CEO, Parallel Systems. “We are conducting ongoing and extensive analysis and testing to demonstrate that our rail vehicles are ready to be used in pilot programs with real railroad customers. A big part of achieving commercialization is having a train control system that works with what the railroads use today. We are developing a system that will allow railroad companies to operate our autonomous vehicles from their in-house platforms.” 

Additional track-worthiness testing will be conducted with MxV Rail, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads, at MxV’s facility in Pueblo, Colorado. Parallel consulted with MxV to analyze the vehicle’s dynamics with simulations that evaluate how well they stay on the track, improve their railway stability, and minimize risks associated with derailment. 

Parallel is also working with the University of Texas Austin to model the system in operation on specific railroad corridors of interest, including how many cars can be included in a platoon, and how frequently a Parallel platoon can be dispatched. This research will be used to generate actionable data, such as how much cargo can be moved in each day, insights into track congestion, and optimal locations and timing for charging of the vehicles. 

Parallel’s selection as an ARPA-E fund recipient was announced in February 2022; the program officially kicked off in November 2022 and it is expected to run through early 2025. As Parallel’s testing and validation program continues, the company will make further advancements to its systems and technology to commercialize its autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles and make decarbonization of freight a reality. The company plans to continue growing its fleet and will develop and launch more rail vehicles with the ARPA-E funds in the future.