Parallel Systems Gets US Energy Dept. Funding to Test Its Autonomous Electric Freight Cars

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

​Parallel Systems automated electric freight car.
Courtesy of Parallel Systems

Parallel Systems—the startup founded by former SpaceX engineers to develop autonomous, electric rail cars for the freight industry—has received a $4.4 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to fund advanced testing of its technology.

The funding, part of $175 million awarded by the DOE to nearly 70 clean energy tech projects, comes less than a month after Los Angeles-based Parallel Systems emerged from stealth mode with nearly $50 million in Series A funding.

The startup aims to decarbonize the commercial freight industry by creating autonomous, battery-powered freight cars that can break apart or combine with other cars as needed. By eschewing conventional, diesel-powered locomotives with hundreds of freight cars in tow, Parallel Systems’ technology would allow cargo to be delivered closer to its final destination (rather than having to be transported there via freight trucks) and would reduce the need for switching stations where freight trains are broken apart, reassembled, and rerouted.

While some rail industry experts have expressed skepticism about the technology’s prospects, the DOE appears intrigued nonetheless. The funding comes from the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) initiative and will bankroll a 29-month testing program beginning this spring.

The program will evaluate the overall vehicle stability, contact-based platooning and energy efficiency of Parallel Systems’ freight cars. On-track testing will be carried out in Pueblo, Colo., in collaboration with Transportation Technology Center (a subsidiary of the American Association of Railroads) and will examine how the cars perform in various physical conditions. The DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory will work with the University of Illinois’ Rail Transportation and Engineering Center (RailTEC) to size up the technology’s company’s energy efficiency and environmental benefits.

However, the tests won’t evaluate Parallel’s ability to integrate its technology into the existing architecture of America’s rail system—the main concern voiced by industry experts after the startup emerged from stealth last month.

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