Moving freight by rail hasn’t changed a whole heck of a lot over the last several decades. And there are good reasons for this: Trains can move freight four times as efficiently as trucks can, and they can move a huge amount of it at once with minimal human supervision. The disadvantage of trains is that they’re best at long-distance hub-to-hub freight transfers, and usually, you still need to put your cargo on a truck to get it to its final destination. Plus, if you just have a little bit of cargo, you may be at the mercy of a network that prioritizes large volume rather than small.
Parallel Systems, a startup founded by a trio of former SpaceX engineers that is coming out of stealth today, hopes to change this model substantially by introducing autonomous rail vehicles that can handle standard shipping containers—the same containers that currently move freely between cargo ships, traditional rail systems, and trucks. By moving containers one at a time, Parallel Systems believes that rail can be much more agile with no loss in efficiency, helping reduce the reliance on trucking. Can they do it? Maybe—but there are some challenges.
From a technical perspective, these autonomous electric-rail vehicles really seem like they’re achievable. It’s a substantial simplification of an autonomous-driving problem, in the sense that you only need to worry about control in one dimension, and (in particular) that most of the time you can be reasonably certain that you’ll have right-of-way on the track. With some halfway decent sensors to detect obstacles on the track, reliable motors, and batteries that last long enough (current range is 800 kilometers with a subhour recharge time), and the software infrastructure required to sort it all out, I don’t see any major obstacles to building these things and putting them on some tracks. Where things get more complicated is when you consider the long-term plan that Parallel Systems has for its technology:
The overall vision seems very compelling. Decentralizing freight transport and distribution can provide flexibility and increased efficiency, getting cargo closer to where it needs to go in a more timely manner while taking some stress off of overloaded ports. And with each individual container being effectively an independent autonomous vehicle, there are a bunch of clever things you can do, like platooning. In a traditional platoon, efficiency is unequal since the leader takes the brunt of the aerodynamic forces to make things easier on all of the following vehicles, and obviously rotating leaders won’t work on rail. But Parallel Systems’ vehicles can go bumper to bumper and push each other, meaning that overall energy use can be equalized. Neat!
The potential issue here, and it could be a significant one, is that Parallel Systems only builds and controls these little railcars. They don’t build, own, or control the rail systems that their vehicles require. North America has rail all over the place already, but that rail is in the charge of other companies, who are using it to do their own thing. So the question is, how does Parallel Systems fit in with that?
To get a better understanding of the current state of rail in the United States and how Parallel Systems might fit in with that, we spoke with Nick Little, director of the Railway Management Program at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you describe how the rail network functions in the United States?
Nick Little: We've got 250,000 km of railroad in the United States, and it's owned by over 600 different companies. There are seven large companies called Class 1, which move the majority of the freight the majority of the distance, between large cities or across the country. Those companies all own their own infrastructure—the track, the bridges, the signaling system, the locomotives. The other 600-odd railroads are generally referred to as short lines, which do a lot of the first and last mile, and most of those railroads are small operations that may not have good quality track and older equipment, including less sophisticated signaling systems.
I can imagine that a difficulty here will be integrating this new vehicle into an existing railroad network, since it’s such a different concept. If one of these vehicles was going to travel a distance of hundreds of kilometers, there could be a lot of different railroads involved, with a lot of different pieces of track and switches to navigate.
Can you talk a little more about switches and signaling?
Little: To really benefit from the ability of these vehicles to increase capacity by transporting single containers, you’d need to have the right signaling and control system in place, and it would have to be much more like what is used on a high-capacity metropolitan subway—control based on direct communication with vehicles, rather than the block control that’s used on most long-distance railroads in this country at the moment. That block system operates on the principle that you can have only one train in that block at any one time to avoid collisions, and sometimes those blocks are 20 km long. And a lot of the long-distance freight lines are still basically single-track lines with passing sidings rather than one track in each direction.
In theory, you could make these vehicles a lot more responsive by being able to send a signal to some...trackside device that would change a switch for dynamic rerouting, but this isn’t something that currently exists across freight-rail networks. It does exist on tramways; urban streetcars work that way. Could it be done? Heck, yes. The technology is there.
So in the short term, you don't see that there's really a good way of mixing these vehicles in with traditional freight traffic on existing freight lines?
Does our rail system currently have the spare capacity to add more traffic to the existing network anyway?
Little: If we run the rail system the same way it's set up at the moment, it's pretty close to capacity in many areas, but not at absolute capacity across the whole network, by no means. And some of the constraints on capacity are nothing to do with the physical side of it; it's also down to availability of trained and experienced labor.
If you were in charge of a Class 1 railway right now and Parallel Systems came to you with this idea, would you be interested?
Little: If I had a dedicated set of tracks that didn't carry any other different types of traffic, just moved containers, I would be interested, but I don't know of any company that does that. However, if you think about the problem we've got in this country at the moment, with all the ships and containers stacked up outside the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, and how to get those containers from the docks to an inland terminal where they can go to transloading places or warehouses or some of them can go straight through to other destinations, if you were to build a short dedicated stretch of line that just moved containers off the port to, let's call it a pop-up inland port, that could be a great idea. That seems like a really, really efficient way of doing it.
The technology needs to be proven, which could be done on a small scale. Scaling it up could have a lot more issues, but I’d like to see it potentially applied to urban freight. A lot of container traffic has to move on roads through cities, but if you could actually have distribution with rail from a major terminal to lots of different customers in an industrial park, that could be something useful too. But that’s a different scale.
And for Parallel Systems’ perspective on some of these challenges, we were also able to speak with the company’s cofounder and CEO, Matt Soule.
Why is now the right time to start a company like this, and what challenges are you dealing with?
Matt Soule: There is a big advantage in that what we're building is achievable. There are no breakthroughs required to do it. We're basically integrating a lot of existing technologies together. But a lot of what we're doing is very unique for the railroads themselves. What one of the challenges has been is just understanding how railroads operate at the nuts-and-bolts level of how you actually manage that kind of network.
One of the things we're working through now is how to leverage the physical infrastructure that's already there, because we want to use that as it is. We think that's a big advantage in terms of our market entry—not having to force the creation of any infrastructure. But there's also the control and data-management infrastructure that exists at the software level. And discovering how that works requires working with the industry to really figure it out. So that's been one of the things we’ve been working hard toward.
Are you concerned about having to rely on potentially many different companies for track access?
Soule: So in terms of our market entry, it's going to be working with specific railroads on specific sections of network, and we’ll be captive to that network, but as we validate and verify what we're doing, we’ll start working toward becoming a common interface that can address the needs of all railroads. In terms of the business side, we likely would have to build individual relationships with them, but it's something they already do with each other today—they work with each other to use each other's tracks, and it’s one of the successes of North American rail that the industry has worked together to create interchangeable standards.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the rail industry so far?
Soule: We've had a lot of conversations with the rail industry; we're definitely calibrating off of the problems that they see. I’d say across the board the reception has been very positive, and it's exceeded our expectations. I think there are certainly operators out there that are going to take a wait-and-see approach, but we have a lot of strong interest from industry already. Railroads are our customers.
We think that marrying autonomy with electrification gives the railroads a lot of tools to create new markets, like capturing trucking volume, that were previously out of reach.
—Matt Soule, CEO Parallel Systems
Will dealing with signals autonomously with your system be an issue?
Soule: Class 1 railroads have state-of-the-art control systems and a tremendous amount of software that ties it all together and operates it. And so what we're doing is building out our own system that can be compatible with these existing network control systems. The short-line railroads have more variety. I wouldn't say they're out of date, but they're not quite as modernized as some of the Class 1 systems. They'll usually use a phone or radio to call into a central dispatch office, and then say, “Hey, can I have this track authority?” And the dispatcher will have a software tool that's managing those authorities, which are what prevents trains from having a collision.
What's nice about our system is that it can electronically make that same request from that dispatch office. So, there's electronic handshaking happening between our system and that legacy dispatching office, and there’s various levels at which you could automate that. The grand vision would be that the dispatching office and our system are just computers talking to each other.
What’s next for Parallel Systems?
Soule: We're in the midst of building our second-generation vehicle, so we're looking to hire a lot of software and hardware engineers. We should be rolling this quarter, and we're launching an advanced testing program this year. We are working with some players in the rail industry, but we're not revealing too much about the nature of this relationship.
Parallel Systems has raised US $49.55 million in a Series A round, so they should have plenty of time to see if they can make this work. And if they can, I’d be first in line for the spinoff business that they should absolutely do: putting little luxury private compartments on their vehicles and offering private tours of scenic rail lines.
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Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.