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Grad student aims to engineer a brighter automotive future for Uganda

A master’s student studying electrical engineering is taking what he’s learned as a Buckeye and using it to help build Kiira Motors Corporation, a startup car company in his native country of Uganda.

Dennis Kibalama is furthering Kiira Motors’ efforts by learning about the global marketspace and technology around the world and trying to apply it to the company’s product line.As the team’s electric propulsion system lead engineer, Kibalama deals primarily with the high-voltage components of the hybrid vehicle.

Kiira Motors is striving to help Uganda fulfill presidential initiatives and meet Vison 2040, which aims to elevate Uganda to a middle-income country by year 2040.  

“In Uganda in particular it’s not just the fact that you need cars, it’s also going to trickle down into the economy,” said Kibalama.

Set to start production in late 2018, Kiira Motors will be the first car manufacturing plant located in Uganda. Currently, the country only has distribution centers for foreign cars.

Kibalama got his start at Kiira Motors as an undergraduate research student, then came to Ohio State as a visiting scholar to learn about projects underway at the university’s internationally renowned Center for Automotive Research, specifically EcoCAR.

“In my case, that’s why I came to Ohio State out of all the institutions,” he said, “I actually came to Ohio State because of EcoCAR.”

Ohio State was crowned Year Two champion of the EcoCAR 3 – Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition in 2016. The four-year engineering feat challenges 16 select universities to redesign a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro to reduce its environmental impact, while maintaining performance. The 2016 win marks the third consecutive victory for the Buckeyes.

“A project like EcoCAR gives students access to the very latest technology and allows them to compete in a high-stakes, national competition,” said Shawn Midlam-Mohler, associate professor-clinical in mechanical and aerospace engineering and faculty adviser for the Ohio State EcoCAR team. “It is one of the best examples of Ohio State’s commitment to experiential learning activities to produce students with an exceptional experience.”

But EcoCAR isn’t the only thing about Ohio State that has impressed Kibalama. 

“Ohio State has been really awesome, the facilities at CAR and the support of the faculty is really good,” said Kibalama. “In addition, it’s not just the faculty, it’s also the students. They are a pretty brilliant bunch of people.”

As the team’s electric propulsion system lead engineer, Kibalama deals primarily with the high-voltage components of the hybrid vehicle. He works to design, integrate and test these components within the car.

“In his work with EcoCAR, Dennis also has gained significant leadership experience through managing students on his sub-team,” said Midlam-Mohler. “This leadership experience is absolutely vital to his future success when he goes back to Kiira to support their vehicle development efforts.”

Working on the student motorsports team has given Kibalama hands-on experience that he can apply to Kiira Motors’ goals.

“I would really be happy to see a car on the road and know I did something to make that happen, to me that’s fulfilling,” he said. “It’s not just about having a product out there, but having a good product, something that I can be proud of.”

by Emily Lehmukhl, College of Engineering student communications assistant