If you’re in the business of fleet management then you’ve likely heard of ”black boxes“. What exactly are these black boxes, and how do they fit into a fleet management system? How do they work and what important role do they play as part of a location-based software service?

Black boxes are a type of core unit

“Black box” is a generic term that refers to just one type of a wide range of core units that connect satellite signals with a fleet management software application such as Telogis Fleet.

Black boxes are commonly used in GPS fleet tracking applications since they are ideal for providing an accurate picture of vehicle movement and activity, requiring no input from the driver. They are generally concealed in a hidden location on the vehicle, have no additional inputs, are weatherproof and look like — well, black boxes.

Like other core units, they receive satellite signals, log data and connect to a wireless data network, such as a cellular network.

Some other types of core units include:

  • Control units — Such as those found in loading platforms
  • Handhelds — Including units such as PDAs
  • Peripherals — Notebook PCs or PNDs
  • Sensors — Including scales, or sensors that report door status or other information

So while black boxes are commonly used, they are only one device that can be used to connect GPS location data with back-office software applications.

How are black boxes connected?

The power of a black box, or any core unit for that matter, is its ability to connect to a device, collecting diagnostic data such as engine run time, speed, RPM, emissions, and acceleration. Access to information on an engine’s health and status can create huge opportunities for telematics systems to revolutionize the way mobile businesses are managed.

But how are these devices connected to a vehicle’s electronics?

The most common option is via an OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostics II) port. OBD-II is a required standard for all petrol-powered engines sold in Europe and throughout the U.S. Essentially, it monitors engine emissions, but it also provides access to other basic data that can be used in a telematics system.

In addition to OBD-II, vehicle manufacturers allow more in-depth data to be extracted using the CAN-bus. The CAN-bus does require knowledge of each manufacturer’s individual protocols, but it does allow black boxes (or any core input, for that matter) to access a valuable wealth of information about a vehicle.

Protocols are becoming more standardized across manufacturers, including such standards as J1939, developed by the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). It allows advanced diagnostic data like lane departure and seat belt use to be captured using a standard protocol. That means more devices will be compatible and less development time will be required — time that was previously spent researching the specific codes being used by each individual manufacturer.

The physical connections for core units are varied and include:

  • RS-232 (serial port)
  • USB
  • Bluetooth and WiFi for wireless connections

The variety of ways to connect a black box means these units are very versatile in how they can be deployed and used in a commercial application.

What do black boxes mean for your fleet?

Black boxes are just one part of your total fleet management system. It’s helpful to understand where they fit in and the important part they play in extracting valuable data from your assets.

The important thing to take away is that black boxes are the key to transforming the way you manage your business — there’s not a lot you can’t measure with a black box installed on your mobile assets and a fleet management system.