Even the simplest car parts> can have deadly consequences. Which is why some safety advocates are raising red flags about the growing influx of Chinese auto parts.
Made in China isn t a label you ll see on a vehicle anytime soon. But if you ve had your car worked on lately, there s a small but growing chance that your mechanic will be using Chinese-made parts. Indeed, these imports have risen sharply to $8.5 billion in 2007 up from $1 billion in 1998. That s still a small fraction of the $286 billion car-parts business, but Chinese-made components comprise a big chunk of the parts used in the so-called aftermarket, especially in car repairs. According to consulting firm McKinsey, an estimated 80 percent of Chinese parts brought to the U.S. are used as replacements. China is also the largest exporter of tires to the United States.
Because Chinese parts are generally cheaper, they do keep repair costs down welcome relief in this economy. But after a string of disturbing incidents, safety experts are raising concerns about the made-in-China movement. In 2007 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered the recall of 450,000 Chinese-made replacement tires that lacked a gum strip, making them prone to tread separation and leading to a fatal 2006 crash in Pennsylvania.
The agency has also received reports of Chinese engine fuses that could spark an electrical fire, windshield glass that could shatter into large shards and poorly welded wheel rims that could separate from the wheels at highway speeds. All those parts have been recalled, along with 2 million potentially defective rubber valve stems, after a deadly accident traced to this tiny part. It s a growing problem, says Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a consulting firm that investigates auto accidents.
To be sure, Chinese companies aren t the only ones with manufacturing black eyes. More than 600 automotive recalls occur every year, and every major carmaker has at one point issued one. Even safety experts say the concern is largely anecdotal, since the U.S. doesn t track recalls by country of origin. Meanwhile, companies that import Chinese parts say they have good quality controls in place and that parts meet industry and governmental standards. Indeed, upgraded facilities have led to tremendous improvement in Chinese manufacturing in the past decade, says Lee Kadrich of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, a lobbying group.
But fair or not, Chinese manufacturers are facing an image issue these days. In the past year or so, the country s factories have been linked to lead-tainted toys, contaminated pet food and defective pharmaceuticals. According to one press report, the Chinese government admitted in 2007 that one-fifth of its products didn t pass inspection. Even Chinese business representatives say their factories need to do better. We ve seen improvement in Chinese products. But this problem won t go away, says Siva Yam, president of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce.
Ask Sara Monk. Her husband, Robert, was killed in 2007, after he lost control of his Ford Explorer on a Florida highway. The accident occurred after one of his tires suddenly lost air pressure. But there wasn t anything wrong with the tire. Rather, investigators linked the failure to a cracked valve stem a $3 rubber part, made in China, that had come with a new set of tires he d purchased about a year earlier. It s horrible to think something so small could be so devastating, says Monk.
The repair-parts industry does have standards, of course, but enforcement is an issue. While SAE International has a list of 2,000 individual technical standards for ground vehicles, partmakers aren t required to comply and even if they were, policing the complex universe of distant factories, unnamed subsuppliers, and mom-and-pop importers is difficult at best. Not that anyone s really looking, since very few aftermarket components are in fact certified by an industry group or government body. Industry standard is a meaningless term, says Jack Gillis, executive director of the Certified Automotive Parts Association.
As for the government, NHTSA says its hands are tied: It has no jurisdiction over most parts. Are we monitoring replacement parts coming in? No, says spokesperson Rae Tyson. It s beyond our regulatory purview. NHTSA, he says, investigates only once problems arise. And while entire new vehicles must meet federal safety standards, there are very few federal standards for the 10,000 parts that go into a car, says Allan Kam, a former NHTSA senior enforcement lawyer.
Most drivers, of course, have no idea where parts come from or even bother to ask. Certainly, most have noticed that repair bills have escalated as cars have become more high-tech. But few are aware of the cutthroat competition among replacement-part makers, especially in today s slumping auto market. Because they tend to make commodity products (like those valve stems), Chinese companies typically compete among the lowest-cost producers, says Oded Shenkar, an expert in Chinese management at Ohio State University s Fisher College of Business. Eliminating an extra adhesive strip and saving a few cents could mean the difference between closing a factory line and winning a multimillion-dollar order. People fight over tenths of a penny, says Brian Rigney, general manager of Dill Air Controls Products, the company that distributed the recently recalled Chinese valve stems.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for safety advocates is that it may take months for a defective part to be recalled and even then, most consumers may not find out about it. While vehicle owners usually get notified if their vehicle has a defect, replacement parts and tires tend to slip through the system, since they re almost impossible to track once they leave the retailer or repair shop. Only 10 percent of owners register their tires, and hardly anyone fills out registration paperwork for a replacement fuse or valve. As for Rigney, he has his own solution: His valve stems will soon come from a factory in the U.S.