Autonomous truck platoons are a bust, but they work if you put them on rails

A yellow cargo container rides on an autonomous rail car
Enlarge / No, this is not a screen grab from the movie Logan. It’s Parallel Systems’ second-generation autonomous electric rail vehicle.

Parallel Systems

Platoons of driverless cargo trucks cruising across highways is one of those tempting technocrat ideas that doesn’t look like it will pan out. As autonomous driving technology matured in the middle of the last decade, we saw trials of the concept, but human truck drivers do more than just throttle, steer, and brake, and they aren’t likely to be replaced soon.

A better idea would be to shift some of that cargo to our underutilized railways—here, the idea of platooning is an old one, better known as a “train.” Parallel Systems hopes to do just that with its second-generation autonomous battery-electric freight railcar.

“Our goal is to transfer more of the trucking traffic onto the railroad. In order to do that, the railroad needs to be far more flexible,” explained John Howard, co-founder and vice president of operations at Parallel Systems.

Instead of a conventional train with one or more locomotive cars pulling a long chain of unpowered cargo cars, each rail car is a self-powered electric vehicle. “It’s essentially like a skateboard where you can put individual metal containers on top, you can stack them two high,” Howard told me. “They can stack together to make platoons—they push on each other. But the value proposition is that each individual car can break off and go to where it needs to go,” he explained.

“When you’re looking at a terminal, a traditional freight train is about three miles long, which means you need a place to park three miles of a rolling stock. You need a buffer of about 300 containers. You have trucks going back and forth. It’s a big operation with a lot of real estate and a lot of cost. Our vehicles can interface like a semi truck to go directly where they need to go, load and unload you to get out of the way,” Howard told me.

“A great example is the Port of LA and Long Beach,” he said. “They have three parallel railroad tracks coming out of that port. It’s trenched, so there are no grade crossings, no road intersections. It runs in less than three percent of capacity. And there are two reasons: The port doesn’t have enough real estate to assemble the trains—that would mean they have to store the cargo, sort it, queue it, and put it onto the trains. The other reason is most of that cargo first wants to go about 70 miles to the Inland Empire, to San Bernardino where it gets transloaded.”

A top-down look at the second-generation Parallel Systems rail vehicle. The biggest change is the spanning section between the two trucks.
Enlarge / A top-down look at the second-generation Parallel Systems rail vehicle. The biggest change is the spanning section between the two trucks.

Parallel Systems

That 70-mile journey happens by truck because it makes no economic sense to assemble a conventional train for the trip. But Parallel’s rail cars don’t need to be hooked up together and assembled before making the trip, and they work in concert with a control system that optimizes traffic.

That should take a lot of trucks off the road, particularly around highly polluted areas like ports. And Parallel’s electric rail cars are about four times more efficient than an electric cargo truck, the company says.

Last year, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program awarded Parallel $4.4 million, and today, Parallel introduced its second-generation vehicle, which it will use to start testing the rail car’s ability to operate on the existing rail network.

The most significant visual change to the first-generation system (which Ars looked at last year) is a spanning structure that connects what were previously two individual truck assemblies. So far, Parallel has built three second-gen rail vehicles, with another three in build now. They’ve been in testing since November of last year at Parallel’s test track in Southern California, but in 2024, Parallel will start track-worthiness testing with MvX Rail (the Association of American Rail’s R&D subsidiary) in Pueblo, Colorado.

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