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Are Electric Autonomous Trains The Future of Freight?

To solve the growing issue of pollution, we have to look at the major sources of carbon emissions around the world. Manufacturing is a major problem, and probably the most obvious, as shown by the columns of smoke erupting from factory chimneys all over the country. Transportation, however, is right there as well – as it accounts for 29 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in America – and the industry currently stands at the forefront of the electrification movement. This is due to the influx of electric automotive manufacturers like Tesla in the consumer sphere. But what about non-consumer transportation? 

The millions of metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere from medium and heavy-duty trucks along with freight trains would still need to be addressed even if the entire country was using electric cars.

Because these vehicles are carrying large quantities of nearly every item or material that is consumed around the country, fixing the emissions sector won’t happen overnight. But a few former SpaceX engineers are working on a solution that would make a serious dent if implemented nationwide.

Image courtesy of Pascal Meier

Their idea is in line with what many expect the future of freight to look like: autonomous, free-floating train cars powered by clean energy. Reforming the train industry around this concept would have a two-pronged effect on the emissions of the transportation industry as a whole. The first effect is an obvious one – switching the majority of these trains and train cars from the diesel status quo to a fully electric alternative would remove those vehicles from the pollution equation as a factor. The second effect is more subtle than the first, yet arguably just as impactful. It involves streamlining the loading and unloading processes, which would create a cascading effect as the freight market scrambles to find an economic equilibrium that ends with fewer trucks on the road overall.

Parallel Systems, argues that the secondary effect of their train cars being autonomous could change the way all types of goods are hauled throughout the United States. In freight, trucks have always been a necessity in their use as supplementing train transportation because of the loading process. Trains are quite long, so removing specific cars from the chain at each individual station along the way is often a logistical nightmare for everyone involved. 

Image courtesy of Akshay Nanavati

With the Parallel Systems model, each individual car is self-driving, meaning it doesn’t have to stay hooked onto a lone conductor car in order to get to its destination. This means shorter trains, far less logjams at unloading stations, and a far greater systemic capacity for hauling goods nationwide. More goods being moved on trains equates to fewer goods on trucks, bringing a massive emissions reduction on top of the existing reduction from switching diesel trains to renewable ones. 

Parallel Systems has raised around $50 million in seed money from investors so far, with more expected to come once greater awareness of the potential spreads. This process becomes easier with investors having access to physical prototypes, according to Parallel officials. “No matter how many PowerPoint presentations we give them, as soon as they come to see it in person, you can see the lightbulb come on,” said Matt Soule, one of the former SpaceX engineers who is now the founder and CEO of the new company. “The opportunity we’ve been after is kind of decarbonizing freight from a new angle.”


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