Parallel Systems, a startup founded by a pair of former Space X engineers, is testing an advanced prototype of its logistics innovation: a battery-powered flatcar that can go 500 miles on a charge, guide itself to its appointed destination, and replenish its battery pack in no more than an hour, ready to set off again.
The flatbed, which looks like a clunkier and stubbier version of a skateboard, can tote a load by itself or be paired with a sibling to handle a 40-foot cargo container while using 25 percent less fuel than a semi truck to move the same volume of goods and get there faster.
The developers also are perfecting software that can interact with railroads’ current guidance systems to enable their flatbeds to steer themselves automatically to programmed destinations.
More broadly, the company hopes to reinvent railroads’ freight service.
Conventional trains can be 200 cars long because the more cars that can gang together, the cheaper it is to move a unit of freight.
The downsides: long trains can regularly frustrate car traffic. In addition, they require giant freight yards and, often, a lot of time to disassemble a long train and reconfigure new trains to take loads to their final destinations.
Also, the locomotive pulling a train does the work while the freight cars are dragged along as dead weight.
In contrast, Parallel Systems’ cars can travel by themselves or run bumper-to-bumper, with each pushing the one ahead of it, equalizing the power usage and boosting efficiencies.
Then, when it’s time for cars to go their separate ways, they simply peel off from the conga line at the right junctions.
The electric flatbeds can be offloaded in ones or two at mini-terminals—no need for the tedious process of moving a long train car by car past a lift crane for unloading.
In addition, the cars have vision systems that can “see” a line of backed-up vehicles at a crossing. In those cases, the cars will break their train: some cars will continue through the crossing while others wait on the tracks for drivers to cross, then start rolling again when the line of traffic has passed.
The same vision system can see obstacles on the rail track, such as a stalled vehicle, and can brake ten times faster than a conventional train, according to Parallel Systems.
After recently raising more than $49 million in second-round financing, Parallel Systems is refining its hardware and software on a closed-loop track in California while it continues talks with freight companies from truckers to ocean shippers.
TRENDPOST: All transportation is becoming “smart”—programmable, self-guiding, and able to make decisions.
Trains are the best place to refine many elements of smart transportation because they’re confined to tracks that are operated under tight controls. City buses will follow; they travel pre-programmed routes according to a fixed timetable. Today’s autonomous shuttles that carry passengers around airport terminals are forerunners.
Vans and small trucks running specific, limited local delivery routes, such as from freight terminals to warehouses, likely will be the challenge to be conquered after that.
Long-haul trucks and passenger cars will be ready; they encounter more obstacles and are faced with more complex and spontaneous problems and challenges.
Driving a vehicle has long been the most common job for a man in the U.S. At the end of 2019, there were almost five million Americans making a living behind the wheel. By the middle of the century, more than half of those jobs will be gone.
Parallel Systems’ flatbed rail trolley.
Parallel Systems’ smart flatbed rail cars moving a cargo container.
Credit for both photos: Parallel Systems
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