US car owners are being warned about counterfeit airbags, believed to come from China, which may fail to inflate, or even explode during an accident.
The counterfeit airbags typically look like airbags made by automakers and usually include a fabricated manufacturer's logo. They are believed to have been fitted by unwitting repair shops, some of which were sold the counterfeit airbags by a Chinese businessman.
The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agency said on Wednesday that testing revealed that counterfeit airbags were being used to replace bags in vehicles involved in crashes over the past three years.
The agency was not aware of any deaths or injuries linked to the counterfeit airbags, but said these airbags could malfunction and explode, sending metal shrapnel into the vehicle's passenger cabin. The problem affects most major brands.
The full scope of the problem was not certain, but the agency believed the issue affects less than 0.1 per cent of the US vehicle fleet.
Consumers who bought their cars new, have not had their airbags replaced, or had the bags replaced at a new-car dealer, were not affected. "Any time equipment that is critical to protecting drivers and passengers fails to operate properly, it is a serious safety concern," US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
The Detroit News said in February that Chinese businessman Dai Zhensong pleaded guilty to importing counterfeit airbags and was sentenced in federal court in Tennessee to 37 months in prison. Zhensong, one of three owners of Guangzhou Global Auto Parts International Group in China, told investigators that he routinely bought original airbags from major automakers and reverse-engineered them.
He then sold the fake airbags to US repair shops for US$50 to US$70. The legitimate airbags cost around US$700 to US$1,000.
The traffic safety administration said it was working with several federal agencies, including US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Customs and Border Protection, to prevent fake airbags from being bought and installed. "Dangerous counterfeit … airbags [are being sold] to consumers and suppliers with … no regard to hazardous health and safety consequences," customs director John Morton said.