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Aubrey McClendon’s car will tell whether he killed himself

Aubrey McClendon left a mystery: Did he deliberately drive his 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV into a bridge support at high speed? Or did something else that he couldn’t control, such as a heart attack or other emergency, cause the crash?

The Oklahoma City police say it will take them a week or two to investigate what happened to McClendon, a colorful, high-profile energy magnate who was indicted the day before he died for rigging bids on oil and gas leases between 2007 and 2012. At the time, he was CEO of Chesapeake Energy (CHK), the galavanting firm he co-founded in the 1980s and was forced out of in 2013. Investigators will undoubtedly try to retrieve data stored in McClendon’s SUV that can help explain what happened, similar to the way “black boxes” on an airplane record key events leading up to a crash. If that data wasn’t destroyed by a fire that erupted after the crash, it will reveal how fast the car was going when it slammed into the bridge, whether the driver was pressing the gas at the time of impact and a lot of other information.

McClendon's Chevy Tahoe. REUTERS/KWTV Skynews 9HD/Handout via Reuters
McClendon's Chevy Tahoe. REUTERS/KWTV Skynews 9HD/Handout via Reuters

The obvious question is whether McClendon, in despair at news of the indictment or some other reversal, committed suicide by vehicle. Police have already said he was traveling well above the 40-mile-per-hour speed limit on the road, and that he had a chance to steer away from the bridge but didn’t. Other circumstantial evidence, such as a lack of prominent skid marks close to the bridge, also suggests suicide. “I’d say he aimed for that bridge support,” says Rusty Haight, director of the Collision Safety Institute in San Diego, who has examined photos and videos of the crash. “He was going into that bridge support. It’s the only thing in the area.”

Onboard data from the Tahoe will help investigators know for sure, although the systems in cars are actually quite different from the event-data recorders in airplanes. In aviation, regulators require EDRs to capture standardized sets of data, and the devices are designed to withstand crashes, fires and deep ocean submersion. Vehicles, by contrast, don’t contain a box, per se. The data is captured by an airbag control module, which is more like a chip. All modern vehicles have such chips, but the data captured varies by manufacturer. And the modules aren’t fireproof, either. Many are made of aluminum; the one in a 2013 Tahoe is made of plastic.

Still, the modules usually survive crashes, and sometimes fires. On the Tahoe, the module is located near the floor shifter that sits atop the center tunnel, to the right of the driver. So it doesn’t absorb the immediate impact of a frontal crash. Carpeting and other material surrounding the module may protect it in a fire. If the module is damaged, forensics experts might be able to retrieve some data, anyway. “Data can survive despite severe damage to a vehicle and the electronic devices inside,” says Steve Watson, founder for VTO Labs, a forensics firm based in Seattle. Sometimes, sensors can even pinpoint how hot a vehicle fire got.

A vehicle’s data recorder can’t tell investigators the intent of the driver, of course. But it can reveal a lot about his actions. “It will be able to tell you how fast he goes into the wall, whether his foot was on the gas going into the wall, or on the brakes trying to avoid the wall,” says Haight. Sensors can only tell whether the brake pedal was pressed or not, but they can measure how far to the floor the gas pedal was pressed. So if it was floored, McClendon was probably trying to go as fast as possible. Other types of vehicles have modules able to record even more data than the Tahoe does, such as steering inputs, which in this case would help determine if McClendon aimed for the bridge support or lost control. Investigators will have to infer that.

Insurance companies involved in McClendon’s case will also likely want as much data as possible from his vehicle, to determine the cause of the crash. And investigators will naturally review tons of other information, including medical records and autopsy results, notes or other materials he may have left behind, and any insights McClendon’s friends and family may be able to offer. A confounding story will clear itself up soon enough.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.