Autonomous electric rail vehicles to be trialed in the US

The USA has had self-driving cars on the streets for some time so it’s only logical that trains  should enjoy similar autonomy, although in this particular trial, what we think of as the ‘train’ is conspicuous by its absence. 

The system of rail transportation has been developed by a Los Angeles-based company called Parallel Systems. Founded in 2020 by a group of former SpaceX engineers, the company has created battery-electric rail vehicles to move freight cleaner, safer, and more cost effectively than traditional trucks.

Each of the autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles have their own battery, traction motor, computer and sensors and can move along the rail independently, but it is envisaged that for greater efficiency they would travel in groups of 10 to 15,  transporting standard shipping containers as a single or double stacked load. 

The vehicles use just 25% of the energy of an articulated lorry, and it is claimed they offer the lowest operational cost of any surface freight transportation. 

Georgia Central Railway and Heart of Georgia Railroad have now applied to the Federal Railroad Administration to pilot the technology on portions of their rail lines.

They say: ‘GC and HOG believe the development and anticipated adoption of this technology has the potential to capture new container business moving to and from the Port of Savannah, as well as reinvigorate traffic on rural rail lines and revive inland ports in Georgia – all while removing trucks from the region’s roads and reducing carbon emissions.’

This is an important point, the new technology is very much aimed at taking freight off the road, rather than being a new way to move rail freight, although that will be an inevitable by-product. To that end it is expected they will make relatively short journeys.

The company’s founder and CEO, Matt Soule explained: ‘The goal is to use platoons of autonomous rail cars to deliver freight on routes of about 500 miles that are typically handled by trucks today. Mile-long trains pulled by a central locomotive don’t make economic sense on such routes.’

500  miles is also the distance the units can travel on one charge although, as they can be charged in one hour, that  does not represent a limiting factor. 

Unlike traditional freight trains, Parallel’s platoons do not need to carry large quantities of freight to make the service economical, meaning they can offer a more responsive service and a wider range of routes.

While safety is the main concern over driverless cars, Parallel claims their system is safer that the alternative, with the vehicle being able to quickly detect hazards and stop up to 10 times quicker than a train.  They also point out that the railroad’s closed network is ideal for autonomous technology due to it’s limited track access and centralised traffic control.

If approved, the pilot will begin next year.



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