FreightWaves recently chatted with Matt Soule, co-founder and CEO of Parallel Systems, a company that seeks to build an autonomous rail option. The company’s goal is to develop autonomous rail vehicles that would be deployed in a platoon of rail vehicles. This platoon would not hook up with locomotives or conventional freight trains, although it would utilize the existing rail infrastructure.
Parallel Systems has made an autonomous rail vehicle, but its goal is to produce multiple vehicle and test them and ensure they are compatible with the existing dispatch technology on the existing rail network.
FREIGHTWAVES: What has been happening with Parallel Systems since FreightWaves reported on the company in November?
SOULE: What we’ve been doing is building our first second-gen[ation] vehicle. We call it the Mark 2 [and] we’ve been testing it since November. We’ve been doing a lot of performance tests around braking, GPS. And we’re building three more vehicles right now, and so we’ll actually for the first time have multiple vehicles to test in terms of how they work together.
We’re also doing a lot of software development and, most importantly, working toward what the industry calls train control integration. We’re very much trying to work within the existing ecosystem, so a very important step for us is to show that we can be compatible with those train control systems that operate conventional rail services today. [We’re] taking a lot of steps forward towards making progress on that front too.
By far the most important thing is to actually demonstrate our platooning system. … The way that these vehicles work is that they move together over the network in platoons of 10 or more — it’s not a conventional coupler. It’s actually a bumper and they make contact, and so it’s a very important set of demonstrations. We’ve done a lot of modeling and simulation around it.
What we would do with more than one vehicle is we would have them platoon together so that we would show the combination of the two vehicles together [maintaining contact through] a bumper system. Then we would move them over the network at speed, with the right traction control to actually maintain not just contact but [also to ensure that] the right forces are being shared through the bumper. This is how we reduce the energy required to move multiple vehicles over the network: You have this fairly ugly aerodynamic container leading the platoon — it has the aerodynamics of a brick, but because we’re able to put cars close behind it, they essentially draft out that first car and experience very little drag.
That is why moving with more than one vehicle is a very important next step for us: to actually start to demonstrate and put into the real-world environment this platooning capability.
FREIGHTWAVES: What commodities would this be suitable for?
SOULE: Our focus is intermodal right now because we think that’s the actual avenue for growth for the rail industry and that’s where there’s a lot of competition with trucking. What we’re trying to do is help shift or free up the activities handled by trucking to rail — this is a modal conversion, not about replacing freight trains. We want to work alongside those conventional freight trains but give the rail industry a platform or a set of tools that can allow them to handle more of the volume that’s done by trucking right now. And for many reasons, there are operational limitations why rail can’t serve more markets, and that’s what we’re trying to unlock.
FREIGHTWAVES: Are there areas or regions where you see this technology being first deployed?
SOULE: There’s a lot of interest around ports because there’s usually an intense amount of containers that move out of those ports into your local areas where there’s a lot of import warehousing.
But this is also suitable for domestic intermodal lanes in the U.S. too where you have significant trucking activity. Just to pick a pair — between Oakland and Reno, for example. It’s not an OT pair that would be served by rail today, but it still has pretty significant trucking volume. And so that’s an example of where we could do something domestically [that is] not related to a marine port. But I would say most of the interest we get right now does center on port-related activities because there’s so much container movement or so much drayage activity, and so people see a lot of applicability in those markets.
FREIGHTWAVES: Is there a timeline for when you want the technology deployed?
SOULE: I think it’s too early to say. I wish I could but we’re trying to follow the sequence of getting the vehicle tested for track worthiness and for compatibility to train control systems. Then we’ll be able to assess what happens after that.
FREIGHTWAVES: Has anything surprised you as you’ve done the research?
SOULE: It speaks to the team’s capabilities that [even though] there’s certainly been struggles and difficulties in making engineering plans turn into reality, I think the team did a great job of anticipating the challenges and the environment that we’ve designed a vehicle for. So we continue to learn and get great feedback from the testing we’re doing. But there’s nothing I would categorize as something that has been like a real shock to us.
FREIGHTWAVES: How are you thinking about rail safety, given the attention it has received lately?
SOULE: Safety has been a huge part of our thinking from day one, regardless of what’s been in national headlines. But I think what has been getting press recently just highlights what an opportunity this is to introduce more technology into this environment. We have power computers, radios and sensors everywhere by comparison, and so that gives us a lot of insight into how our equipment is performing.
For example, rolling stock has wayside sensors that will look at varying temperatures, and ideally, these are being placed every 20 miles or so. We have temperature sensors on our bearings in our axles and we’re monitoring these temperatures 20 times a second. So it gives us a really powerful insight into how our equipment is performing and it enables us to service this equipment before anything bad happens.
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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.
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