Former SpaceX Employees Develop Autonomous Electric Train Cars

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Two years ago, a trio of former SpaceX employees quietly established a new company focused on the transportation of the 19th century instead of the 21st.

With $3.6 million in seed funding, the new project began developing an autonomous, electric prototype rail vehicle that would be able to power a cargo container by itself. In January, Parallel Systems emerged from stealth operations with nearly $50 million in additional funding and ambitions for revolutionizing rail shipping.

Company executives told CNBC that although each of its vehicles would be able to transport just a single cargo container, they could be linked together in platoons of 10 to 50 to move dozens of rail cars with zero emissions.

Although the platoons would be much shorter and move less cargo than conventional freight trains — which can span 200 cars or more — Parallel officials hope that they would provide more flexibility and lower the costs of parking and unloading rail cars. In fact, the company outlined the possibility of overpass-sized “micro-terminals” to unload rail cars, rather than massive rail yards in increasingly crowded cities.

The increased flexibility, officials added, could persuade more companies to ship their goods via rail instead of in semi-trucks — a much more carbon-intensive method than even conventional trains. Parallel added that its vehicles, thanks largely to aerodynamics, require one-quarter of the energy needed by a semi-truck to move the same container — meaning an electric battery could power its vehicles over much longer distances. The company is still evaluating battery options, including the possibility of incorporating energy storage systems used by utilities.

To date, the company has produced several prototypes, made a test run on a closed track in Southern California, and held discussions with 30 leading companies throughout the railroad and logistics sectors. The new funding, officials said, would allow it to add to its staff, conduct more testing, and build a fleet of rail vehicles.

Image Credit: Parallel Systems

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