Autonomous truck platoons are failures, but they work if you put them on the rails – Ars Technica
Platoons of self-driving cargo trucks roaming highways is one of those tempting technocratic ideas that never seems to work. As self-driving technology matured in the middle of the last decade, we’ve seen trials of the concept, but human truck drivers do more than just throttle, steer and brake, and they’re unlikely to be replaced soon.
A better idea might be to move some of that freight onto our underutilized railway lines – and here, the idea of platooning is an old one, otherwise known as a ‘train’. Parallel Systems hopes to do just that with its second generation battery-powered autonomous electric charging vehicle.
“Our goal is to move more trucking traffic to rail,” explained John Howard, co-founder and vice president of operations at Parallel Systems. “In order to do that, rail has to be much more flexible.”
Instead of a traditional train with one or more locomotives pulling a long string of unpowered freight cars, each train car is a self-powered electric vehicle. “It’s basically like a skateboard where you can put individual metal containers on top, and you can stack them high,” Howard told me. “They can group together to form platoons, and push each other,” he explained. “But the value proposition is that each individual car can separate and go where it needs to go.”
“When you look at a passenger terminal, a traditional freight train is about three miles long, which means you need somewhere to park three miles of rolling stock. And you need a buffer for about 300 containers. You have trucks coming back and it’s a big operation that requires a lot of Real estate costs a lot. “Our vehicles can react like a semi-truck to go directly where you need to go, loading and unloading you to get out of the way,” Howard told me.
“A great example of this is the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach,” he said. “They have three parallel railway lines coming out of that port. It’s a trench, so there are no level crossings, no road crossings. It’s running at less than three percent of capacity. There are two reasons: The port doesn’t have enough capacity.” Real estate to assemble the trains, meaning they have to store the freight, sort it, queue it up, put it on the trains, and the other reason is that most of that freight first wants to go about 70 miles to the Inland Empire, to San Bernardino where it gets transported.”
This 70-mile trip is done by truck because it does not make economic sense to assemble a conventional train for this trip. But Parallel’s railcars don’t need to be tied together before making the trip, and they work in coordination with a control system that optimizes traffic.
This should take a lot of trucks off the road, especially around highly polluted areas like ports. The company says Parallel’s electric railcars are about four times more efficient than an electric cargo truck.
Last year, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency program awarded Parallel $4.4 million, and today Parallel introduced its second-generation vehicle, which it will use to begin testing the railcar’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 the extended chassis that connects what were previously two individual sets of trucks. To date, Parallel has built three second-generation rail vehicles, with three more now under construction. It has been tested since November last year at the Parallel test track in Southern California, but in 2024, Parallel will begin track viability testing with MvX Rail (the research and development branch of the Association of American Railroads) in Pueblo, Colorado.