Brazilian President Figueiredo now rides to all official functions in a Ford LTD limousine that runs on pure alcohol. The other day he was photographed driving an alcohol-powered Beetle on the streets of Brasilia.
Within months, the first chief of state to use an official car running on pure alcohol will be joined by thousands of his fellow-citizens. Gen. Figueiredo and the head of the Brazilian Association of Automobile Manufacturers are scheduled to sign an agreement Wednesday aimed at putting 1.7 million alcohol-powered cars on the highways over the next five years.
The accord is the latest step in the government's ambitious, long-term plan to end dependence on costly imported oil. Brazilian cars already run on gasohol, a mixture of 20 percent alcohol with gasoline and the ultimate aim is for pure ethyl alcohol to be the basic auto fuel.
Under the agreement, auto manufacturers in Brazil are to produce at least 250,000 alcohol-powered vehicles a year for the domestic market, beginning in 1980. (Another 500,000 existing cars are to be converted.) Signatories to the accord include the local subsidiaries of General Motors Ford, Volkswagen and Fiat.
"What Brazil has come up with here is a way of saving the automobile," says Prof. Jose Goldemberg of the University of San Paulo, former president of the Brazilian Society of Physicists. "When the world's oil suppliers run out, the car will be obsolete unless an alternative fuel supply is ready."
The Brazilian government is to guarantee that production of sugar cane, which when refined yields the alcohol, will be sufficient to supply the cars. It is to replace its entire official fleet of conventional cars with alcohol-powered autos.
The alcohol program has been a top energy priority here since the 1973 oil crisis. Rising prices and the oil supply crunch triggered by the piranian crisis have accelerated the Brazilian drive for energy independence.
Brazil currently has six million cars and a growing industry that produces more than a million vehicles annually. Government statistics have predicted that the 1979 oil-import bill will reach $7.5 billion.
As a result of the government drive, ethyl alcohol output here already has jumped from 169 million gallons in 1975 to an estimated 910 million gallons this year -- more than total alcohol consumption in the rest of the world.
The Brazilian goals is to produce at least 2.75 billion gallons a year by 1985. To achieve that target, the government program calls for investments of $11 billion in distilleries and other alcohol-related projects through 1984.
"Brazil is the only country in the world that has already made official an alternative energy program based on alcohol," said General Motors do Brasil Resident Joseph Sanchez. "The government has reacted in a realistic and rational manner," to the energy crisis.
At General Motors' plant in Sao Paulo state, the first 252 alcohol- powered vehicles rolled off the assembly line last week destined for a government agency. Early next year, GM will begin mass producing its alcohol-powered vehicles for the public.
GM says its new motor, developed in Brazil by an international technical team and capable of running on gas, alcohol or a combination of the two, is the first "multifuel" engine. To restructure its Brazilian operation and expand production, GM plans to invest $500 million here during the next four years.
By 1982, GM expects to be manufacturing 330,000 of its multifueld engines at the revamped Brazilian plant. Of that total, all but 80,000 will be earmarked for export to Britain, Japan, West Germany and Australia.
A General Motors spokesman here said, however, that the company has "no plans at present" to export the four-cylinder multifueld engine to the United States or to manufacture it at the company's parent plant in Michigan.
"Theoretically, there are no barriers that would preventus from selling or making our line of alcohol-fueled vehicles and engines in the U.S.," said Jairo Lottle of GM. "It's just not in our plans at the moment."
Ford do Brasil, which later this month will begin mass-producing an alcohol-powered version of the LTD and two other models in its 1980 line, also says that it does not envision exports to the United States in the near future. Production is aimed at meeting local demand first.
"At this point, it doesn't depend as much on us as the Brazilian government," said engineering and technical chief Mauro Borghetti. "If they provide the infrastructure that assures there will be enough alcohol to go around, we'll make the cars."
To encourage consumers to switch to alcohol-powered autos, the restrictions and taxes have been eased for purchasers of alcohol-fueled exempted from the current prohibition on weekend fuel sales.
The biggest boon to users of alcohol comes in filling the car's tank. Government decrees have established a pump price of 87 cents a gallon for alcohol -- as opposed to $1.86 a gallon for regular gasoline and $2.98 for high-test. The government says the cost of producing the alcohol is 70 cents per gallon.
Inventive public relations exercises also have been undertaken in an effort to win public confidence. On Sept. 7, Brazil's independence day, 170 race drivers participated in an alcohol-only auto race, held at the same Rio autodrome where the annual international Grand Prix takes place.
"I see nothing but advantages to be gained from using alcohol as a fuel," said the winning driver, Arthur Bragantini, after the race. "The engines perform better, and since the motor temperature is lower, last longer."
Similar conclusions were reached by participants in a road test sponsored earlier this month by the automotive magazine Quatro Rodas. Results of the four-day trial indicated that "the performacne of alcohol-powered cards is as good as, if not better, than that of conventional automobiles."
Involved in the 62,000 mile road test were the Volkwagen "Passat" (Dasher) and Fiat's 147 model. Average mileage for the participating cars was 27.3 miles per gallon.
Such figures lead some Brazilians to think they have found, if not an answer to the energy crisis, at least a partial solution. Already, delegations from the Philippines, Africa and Central and South America have sent delegations to investigate possibilities of adapting their auto fleets to run on alcohol with Brazilian-designed technology.