Digitally Displayed Theremin Sensor; The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal: Cheating Emissions Testing

Alexander, Elmo, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

My technical work and my STS research both analyze how engineering is used to advance current technologies to fit the needs of the society and social climate that we live in. Although the digital theremin and the Volkswagen emissions scandal may seem like completely different topics, they both are the result of using engineering to improve upon something that we deem as unacceptable or unwanted. My technical work focuses on taking the classic, analog theremin and updating it so that it can be easier to play, more pleasant to hear, and much more user friendly. The classic theremin was not widely accepted in society because it produced unpleasant sounds and could only be played by people with lots of training. The Volkswagen emissions scandal also tries to improve upon a technology because the political and social climate called for emissions standards that the company was trying to meet, but instead of upholding standards they violated their duty of care to their stakeholders. While my technical work and my STS research explores very different cases, the underlying theme of the engineering is the same.
For my senior capstone project, my team built a digital theremin sensor which tried to address the user experience issues that were present in the original analog theremin. The device was attached to a 9V battery which connected the power subsystem. We used infrared sensors which connected to a digital to analog converter so the sound could be actuated in the subsystem. Our design differed from the original theremin in two major ways. Firstly, our theremin was digital and used infrared sensors (as opposed to an antenna) which allowed us to tune our pitch. Secondly, we had two pitch sensors (as opposed to one) so we could play more notes and make the sound more appealing. Overall, we accomplished our goal of creating a better and easier to use theremin.
For my STS research paper, I explore the Volkswagen emissions scandal using the ethical framework of care ethics. I argue that Volkswagen should be held morally responsible for deliberately misleading their customers, the EPA, their shareholders, and the general public. In the attempt to make cars more fuel efficient through engineering, Volkswagen’s leadership directed its engineers to meet project deadlines and discouraged any setbacks and rewarded the development of defeat devices to overcome the emissions standards while being tested.
By working on both projects in tandem, I was able to understand the development process and why it is so important to uphold the duty of care owed to those affected by any engineering endeavor. It is easy to criticize and point fingers at a company like Volkswagen for violating environmental standards and lying to the public, but when I understood the engineering process by doing it myself I was able to see on a small scale what those engineers and managers went through in the pursuit of their endeavors, and why it is so important to uphold high ethical standards when designing something that can affect society.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Theremin, Volkswagen Emissions Scandal, Care Ethics

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Benjamin Laugelli
Technical Team Members: Landon Greene, Michael Bliss

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