Fuel Smarts

What Is a Black Box Anyway?

November 02, 1999

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Black boxes. Onboard recorders. Data recorders. Onboard computers. Tachographs. Paperless logs.
Technically, these terms do not all mean the same thing. But they're all being tossed around, practically interchangeably, as the federal government wrestles with how to improve truck safety.
As far as people in Congress, the National Transportation Safety Board, and advocacy groups like Parents Against Tired Truckers are concerned, all these devices not only collect information on vehicle data, such as speed, rpm and braking, but they also do automatic, electronic driver hours of service logs.
And conventional wisdom says they will be mandated, either through a truck safety bill now making its way through Congress, or in new hours-of-service regulations to be proposed soon.
As the debate rages, it is not even always clear that we're talking about the same thing. In September, Freightliner announced that it would make a "black box" data recorder standard on its new Century Class S/T. But, unlike some news reports seemed to imply, the Freightliner black box has nothing to do with driver logs. It is strictly collecting data on vehicle information, which can be used in accident reconstruction.
The Houston school district is installing "black boxes" on its school buses, reported the Associated Press in October. At the cost of $1,000 each, they will record speed, idle time, hard barking, unsafe stops, excessive acceleration and similar information.
Office of Motor Carrier Safety program manager Julie Cirillo recently told Newport editors that proposed hours of service regulations will call for a recording device -- but insisted it was not the same sort of "black box" that the Naitional Transportation Safety Board has been calling for on heavy trucks since 1990.
"I think different people mean different things," when they use the term "black box," says Richard Reiser, executive vice president at Werner Enterprises, which is testing paperless logs under a federal pilot program. "When I read about the black box, I understand that to mean something that would tell you vehicle speed, engine rpms, something that measures vehicle performance. That's nothing really like a paperless log system."


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