A bunch of former SpaceX engineers teamed up to create a new startup that would make electric and autonomous rail vehicles to revolutionize rail-based freight transport. They have a big task ahead of them.
The railroad industry is hard to break into. It is a static oligopoly dominated by a few giants that sit on their railroad rights and make minimal investments to maximize profits.
Over the years, railroads were privatized in North America, and companies have no problem closing smaller railroads. They often close smaller railways when they can not find a way to make money on them and focus on the most profitable routes with longer trains – often up to 3 miles.
Despite these problems, freight trains have remained a good solution as they are about four times as efficient as trucks. But with trucks expected to become electric and autonomous in the coming years, they will close the efficiency gap with trains.
Now Matt Soule, a former longtime SpaceX engineer, has partnered with former colleagues at Elon Musk’s space company to launch a new startup, Parallel Systems, which develops new electric and autonomous vehicles.
The company has just raised $ 50 million in a Series A funding round and came out of stealth mode with an article in Assets. The idea is to create small autonomous electric railway vehicles that can make it possible to use railways in a different way.
You can drop the load on individual Parallel Systems vehicles and make them move without waiting for the entire train to unload.
Then each container can move individually for up to 500 miles or fold together to become more efficient.
This would allow smaller railways to reopen and new ones to be built to deliver goods closer to customers and take some of the market away from trucks. It would also allow for some useful movements like this:
As for the vehicle itself, Parallel Systems vehicles can carry 128,000 pounds, which is more than twice the capacity of a semi-truck. The vehicles have a range of 500 miles on rails and can charge in about an hour.
However, the company currently has only one prototype tested at 50 miles.
This is an interesting solution that makes really good sense to me. I can see a future where this system is on the railroad and it unloads on electric semi-trucks to go to its final destination. It would make the whole transport system more efficient.
However, I think it will be a massive task to convince railway companies to invest in this. It’s not really a situation where they compete and disrupt the market. They have to be suppliers to these companies, and knowing what I know about Union Pacific, CN, etc., it’s going to be a huge uphill battle.
But I wish them good luck.
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