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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a Black Box?

A Black Box, also known as an Electronic Control Module (ECM), is a device that controls the engine as well as monitor sensors on the vehicle. In addition, the ECM is capable of providing numerous reports regarding accident reconstruction such as Hard Braking & Quickstop incidents, Last Stop, and several months of daily usage reports. A new term EDR, (Event Data Recorder) is now also appearing in automobiles and trucks.

2. Are Black Boxes required on commercial vehicles?

The features used for litigation are not required on commercial vehicles but all diesel engine vehicles built today are run by an ECM. The brand of engine will determine what is available regarding litigation information. However, Black Boxes are not required on commercial vehicles.

3. How do I know if the vehicle has an ECM?

All trucks equipped with DaimlerChrysler Powersystems's Detroit Diesel engines since 1995 have some form of electronic controls, and all Detroit Diesel engines since December of 1997 have the reconstruction information available. Mercedes-Benz engines since 2003 have the same information as the DaimlerChrysler Powersystems's Detroit Diesel engines. All other manufacturers have had ECMs on the engine since the early 1990’s and the information that is retrievable has value in accident litigation.

4. Who can extract the Data from the ECM?

Any authorized truck or engine dealer can extract data from their own products; however, most dealers are leery to testify under oath regarding this information. There are persons in the United States who can now offer a download but, the ECM Team was the first (2001) trained, certified and dealer notified by DaimlerChrysler Powersystems's Detroit Diesel. Caterpillar, Mack and others are now part of our services offered.

5. As an attorney, how can this information help my case?

This information can be extremely crucial for both plaintiff and defense. In most cases it is possible that the reports generated can show conclusive information determining fault in an incident and since the information generated is factual, the evidence is often used by law enforcement for accident reconstruction.

6. Can a damaged ECM still have information that can be used?

In many cases, damaged ECM’s can be downloaded. In cases where the ECM has suffered massive damage, the chip that stores the data can sometimes be removed and installed onto another ECM and allow a download to be performed. In cases where extreme fire damage has occurred there is usually no solution.

7. Is extracting ECM data costly?

While data extraction is not inexpensive, the value of the data can be priceless in litigation. ECM data could show conclusively whether or not a party is at fault or if information has been erased to limit exposure. What is the price of "Not Knowing?" In a recent case a trucking company reached a mediation agreement settling a $155 million lawsuit involving a fatality, $55 million for compensatory and $100 million in punitive damages. The settlement prohibited the disclosure of the terms. One other case was still pending when this case story hit the press.

8. How long does it take to extract and process the information?

The data extraction takes roughly 15-20 minutes and the analysis and report generation approximately one day. Turn around time on an extraction and report is 48 hours if required. We generally have the capacity to travel within four hour's notice and in some cases can extract on the same day of an incident.

9. Can the ECM be removed from the engine and still be downloaded?

Yes, we can perform downloads of Detroit Diesel, Caterpillar, Mack, and Mercedes as well as others, with specialized tools. But we strongly suggest on-site downloading to prevent any future credibility questions arising.

10. What action should I take when it appears that an ECM download is necessary?

In the case of a fatality no one should attempt to download the ECM data. The normal tendency of the fleet is to want to see the information. We suggest that you do not allow anyone to perform a download. Most fatality cases the attorney will want to have a third party, not the fleet dealer, engine manufacturer or accident reconstructionist be involved. It is just cleaner.

11. Can I move the truck?

No, there are times that driving the vehicle and stopping quickly at a stoplight or in the parking lot can alter the last Hard Braking events or Quickstop events. Yes, if less than a certain MPH on certain manufactures, the data will not be altered. Play it safe in an all fatality type accidents.

12. Do all the engine manufacturers have the same data?

The answer is no. They each have their own type of data. Caterpillar has Quick Stop information that may be enabled or disabled. Mack and others have similar data and Cummins at this time has no surface data but some information may be helpful. In most cases there is data that could be necessary for the offense or defense in any case.

13. Who owns the data?

Clearly the owner of the vehicle. California passed the nation's first Black Box Privacy Law protecting the privacy of drivers and companies. It took effect on July 1, 2004. It forbids access to the data without either a court order or owner’s permission. We suggest written approval.

14. Can the State or local police have access to the data?

Yes they can, but it has to be by court order and generally it is not a problem to obtain the courts approval to obtain the data.

15. Is there anything I should do to protect myself?

The answer is yes. Do not let your shop download the ECM, do not let any unauthorized individual or shop attempt to download the ECM, and do not move the vehicle. Call the ECM Team.

16. What if I have to move the vehicle?

If you do have to move it, ensure that no panic stops occur. The last stop record will change if you move the vehicle over a certain speed.

17. What if I need to operate the truck?

In most fatalities the vehicle will be impounded and inoperable. In cases where the vehicle has minor repairable damage and there is a likelihood of litigation, it would be in your best interest to have the ECM Team representative immediately download the information or remove the ECM and secure it for future potential litigation.

18. If I remove it from the engine is there anything I should know?

Most engines have an ECM mounted on the engine. In the case of Mercedes and Mack Engines there are two boxes to remove, one on the engine and one in the cab. Both are needed for a download. Check with us or your vehicle manufacturer.

19. I need information on a specific day last year; is it available?

Generally the answer is no, not on a specific day. Once the vehicle is driven after the event, the ECM only holds a certain amount of event data. The questions are what data in the ECM would have value in the case, and what trends and what information could be taken from the life to date histograms that are retained in the ECM.

20. I am confused. What do I do?

Contact the ECM Team in your area. We can support you from the “Beginning to Settlement.”

“You always seemed to be able to get the answer I needed and did so in a timely manner. If I ever have the occasion I would recommend you to another attorney.”
Martina Dillion, Attorney at Law, Pratt & Singer


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