I've seen a "black box" referred to by the media in the past and again today in the reporting of the death of Aubrey McClendon. The headline on the TV said "Police retrieve the Black Box from vehicle".

Is this a real device or do investigators pull data from the ECU and the media just calls it a "black box"?

If its a discrete device or a part of the ECU, what does it record, and for how long? Is it hardened or fireproof like on an airplane or do investigators just have to hope that it's not damaged?

I've read an updated article saying the vehicle in the McClendon case was a 2013 Chevy Tahoe that was almost completely destroyed by fire.

  • 1
    AFAIK when you get into an accident and the airbags to deploy the SRS computer captures some info like speed.
    – Ben
    Mar 3, 2016 at 0:57
  • @Ben Do you know what vehicles actually have this feature? Mar 3, 2016 at 2:25
  • I've heard headlines like that too and have been skeptical Mar 3, 2016 at 2:27

3 Answers 3


To expand on @Ben comment, the air bag controller on GM vehicles does record information prior to, during, and after air bag deployment. It would include most of the operating parameters of the vehicle that you can find on a diagnostic tool. This has been true as far back as the early 2000's when I was a ASE Master Tech at a GM dealership. I can't speak to other makes, but I would assume that all manufacturers are doing this for liability purposes.\

Edit: more info

  • So would this be an instantaneous measurement from the point of impact? a 1 second history? 5 second history? The SRS/Airbag controller handling this sounds the most plausible.
    – JPhi1618
    Mar 3, 2016 at 14:20
  • @JPhi1618 Back in the day, it was several seconds before (guess 5-10) deployment, during deployment, and after deployment for a bit. The exact numbers are probably higher now and I'm sure that every make/model is different. I also know it would do this for multiple impacts. There are companies that specialize in retrieving this data for lawsuits.
    – Mobius
    Mar 3, 2016 at 14:26

It is likely that the article refers to a Telematics box which some insurance companies now require to be fitted on certain policies (typically for young drivers).

These boxes are separate from the vehicles inbuilt systems but many of them interface with the OBD II / CAN-BUS system built into most modern cars. Some new cars come with an inbuilt telematics box. Typically these are essentially data loggers, many featuring a built-in mobile SIM slot which regularly transmit driving data to the insurer.


This is maybe more of a comment than an answer, but..

There are no black box like on a plane (at least not on the brand I know most). There are several ECU's and it's possible that they save some data, for diagnostic purposes. If such data is stored, it would probably have to be extracted by the manufacturer, or by a costly police investigation (hacking those ECU's).

However if such data is stored I would actually think(!) that (at least in Sweden) it would be illegal for the manufacturer to extract it for the police. When buying the car you are not allowing anyone to log, store or sell (or forward) such data.

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