Smart (?) Mobility in Brazil

by Rob Mestrom

As coordinator for the Bachelor Automotive at our university, I could write a story about how we are very happy with the growing number of students in our automotive studies (both BSc. and MSc.), but I prefer something more personal for this guest column.

My name is Rob Mestrom. Next to being coordinator, I am also assistant professor in the Electromagnetics Group of the department of Electrical Engineering. I work on computational aspects of electromagnetism for electromagnetic compatibility (also for Automotive) and for hyperthermia.

This summer, I joined 30 students of our department on the Prosperando studytrip to Brazil. We visited companies, universities and research institutes in Rio de Janeiro, Foz do Iguaçu, Campinas, and São Paulo. Of course, there was also room for touristic things and the occasional night out.
In retrospect, I can say that the trip was an amazing experience in many ways. The four weeks have been very intense and full of impressions. Brazil turned out to be a land of contrasts. In the big cities, lots of rich people live in big houses behind locked iron gates, while homeless people sleep on the sidewalks. The world-famous touristic spots, like the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are, at some places, just a few hundred meters away from favelas (slums). The Brazilian efficiency (which has given an entirely new dimension to the word slow) is compensated by friendliness of the people towards strangers. Inspite of language challenges, people are proud of their culture and history. The interpretation of traffic rules and the horrible traffic jams (especially in São Paulo) have led me to believe that traffic seems to operate by diffusion. So much for smart mobility!

Our technical visits to companies, research institutes and universities showed many interesting developments that are happening. It’s impressive to see the influence of fossil fuel companies like Petrobras on research being conducted. Also the visit to Itaipu dam, the World's largest operating hydroelectric power plant, was very impressive.

Concerning smart mobility, there were quite a few visits worthwhile mentioning. At Galeão Airport in Rio de Janeiro, we had a detailed behind-the-scenes look of the baggage handling system of Vanderlande. On the campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, we saw the first maglev track in South America being prepared for operation in October this year. At General Motors we learned about their bi-fuel system called Eco-flex, which allows their cars to run on any combination of petrol and ethanol (sugar cane). Finally, in Campinas we saw that a spin-off company of the university (UNICAMP) ultimately ended up in the entertainment industry, giving birth to Kartfly, a racing company with electric (!) go-karts.

From an engineering point of view, there was one thing that amazed me most. In the past (and to some extent, still) the government placed strong restrictions on the import of foreign goods and technology. Although this may be a promising approach to create and maintain jobs for your own people, at quite a few places we have seen this resulting in the reinvention of wheels and other forms of inefficiency. Inspite of this, this unique trip has really shown us that Brazil is the land of the future.