Railroads on Track for Autonomous, Zero-Emission Shipping

Self-driving freight rail might be the future of supply chain logistics because it’s cleaner, faster, safer and cheaper.

By Chase Guttman

By Chase Guttman May 4, 2023

Earthquakes are jerking the planet with newfound aggression. Hurricanes are mutilating shorelines with increased ferociousness. And wildfires are scorching massive patches of forest. The reality of global climate change is becoming harder to ignore.

Because there are many variables that contribute to climate change, there’s no single explanation for the escalation of violent weather events and natural disasters. And yet, it’s obvious that transportation deserves at least some of the blame.

Indeed, transportation is responsible for a huge chunk of the nation’s carbon footprint, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which reported that transportation creates 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. That’s more than any other source of emissions, including agriculture, manufacturing and even electricity.


Autonomous Ships Chart Future Supply Chains

Shipping is a central piece of that harmful puzzle. It’s driving many to explore alternative means for transporting goods in a more ecologically sustainable manner. Autonomous electric freight rail could be a solution.

Cleaner, Faster, Safer

Although trains are one of the greenest forms of transportation there is, loud, gas-guzzling trucks deliver most of the goods people purchase, use and consume on a daily basis.

“Almost 75% of freight by value and 60% of freight by tonnage are carried by truck, as it’s a more ubiquitous, flexible, and tailored way of carrying cargo,” said Alan Rutter, head of freight and investment analysis at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute

“But rail is more effective at carrying large quantities, in a more environmentally friendly way.”

Autonomous rail startup Parallel Systems agreed.

“Parallel’s competitive edge is our autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles, which are designed to move freight cleaner, faster, safer, and more cost-effectively than traditional trains or trucks,” Matt Soule, CEO and co-founder of Parallel Systems, said in a press release.


Smart Supply Chain Management for the Masses

To curb global warming emissions, Parallel Systems’ rail technology is intending to make trains a more flexible and attractive avenue for shipping cargo.

“Moving a portion of that freight volume to autonomous battery-electric rail will help alleviate highway congestion, improve road safety, reduce road wear and tear, provide shippers with more cost-effective transportation, and provide environmental health and safety benefits by reducing … trucking emissions,” Parallel said in a separate press release

“Parallel’s unique system eliminates the constraints of traditional train architecture to compete more directly with the flexibility benefits of trucking.”

Parallel isn’t alone. For the past few decades, fully automated trains have been carrying passengers in cities around the world, from South America to the Middle East. And in a rural corner of Australia, driverless locomotives already are moving iron ore from a mine to an ocean port.

“The fundamental reason we’re doing this is to accelerate the decarbonization of freight,” Soule told TechCrunch.

Moving cargo away from congested highways could help the planet breathe a little easier.

“We had brainstormed that a self-powered autonomous rail vehicle would be a game-changer, dramatically improving rail’s ability to compete with the highway, and defend against the looming challenge of autonomous trucks — now acknowledged by most as a matter of when, not if,” Dean Wise, a former vice president of network strategy at BNSF Railway, told CNBC.

Parallel’s individually powered cars are also going to be electric, making them even cleaner than trains currently on the rail network and transforming zero-emission shipping into a reality.

“The fully-automated connected system leverages machine learning to optimize vehicle routing, traffic scheduling, and energy consumption,” Parallel explained in company documents.

Safety is another benefit — especially after the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2023, which spread toxic chemicals across the local community. Because of incidents like that, Parallel is equipping its cars with sensors that can brake in response to critical hazards detected on and along the tracks.


Digital Twin Tech: Modern Tool for Making Safe Products and Services

Onboard computer vision also could save lives, according to Cogniac, which makes AI-powered computer vision systems for railways.

“Human subject matter experts are expected to monitor and inspect tens of thousands of wheels every day on an average size railroad, in addition to tens of thousands of miles of track,” Cogniac explained on its website

“Cogniac’s solution allows railway companies to evaluate, in near real time, train wheels and tracks at speeds of up to 60 mph. From wheel cracks, rail splits, and missing bolts, Cogniac delivers its incredibly powerful AI solution where the rail companies need it most—on the line itself.”

Putting Autonomous Shipping on the Fast Track

To be clear, autonomous trucks are coming and promise many of the same benefits as autonomous rail. But rail may be a safer venue to test autonomous shipping than roadways, according to Dr. Taku Fujiyama of the Railway Research Institute

“One of the key challenges for the adoption of autonomous technology is how to deal with potential collisions with people,” Fujiyama said. “Unlike roads, rail premises are usually segregated. And we know there is no steering on trains, so it would be a good place to test it

Trains operate in a closed system with centralized traffic control, making them a preferable venue to test emerging, autonomous technologies.

“Autonomous rail could be more flexible and dynamic,” Fujiyama continued.


Cloud Powers Autonomous Freight Truck System Designed to Cut Environmental Impact

A key enabler is cloud-powered software. Used to virtually manage fleets of trains, it could help optimize the supply chain.

Parallel, for example, is testing the ability to split off train cars from each other. With that capability, goods could travel to multiple destinations and merchandise could get into customers’ hands faster. That increase in speed means greater savings for companies and, ultimately, consumers. 

Logistics at train terminals also could be improved.

“Parallel Systems’ proprietary architecture allows for smaller, cleaner, and less expensive terminals that can be built closer to shippers and customers, effectively opening up new markets and reducing last-mile delivery costs,” Parallel said.

And then there’s the ongoing truck driver shortage, which is only expected to worsen over the next decade. Migrating cargo from asphalt to rail could help companies sidestep it.

“If we can get more truck volume from the medium- and long-haul segments moved to rail, and then trucking’s activity focuses on last and first mile, we think it helps improve retention in the trucking industry,” Soule told Insider.

As the driver shortage illustrates, the state of the economy is as much of a concern as the state of the planet. Autonomous electric freight rail is an example of how transportation and technology can work together to improve the health of both.

Chase Guttman is a technology writer. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, Emmy-winning drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.

© 2023 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved. For additional legal information, please go here.

Related Articles