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Counterfeit and gray market parts: Shining a light on a lesser-known risk to brake safety

June 15, 2023
While the commercial vehicle industry has gotten creative in working around the parts shortage, it also needs to be aware of installing counterfeit components in vehicles.

There are 13 million trucks operating on U.S. roadways, 2.9 million of which are tractor-trailers, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. These commercial vehicles play an important role in the economy—the more we consume as a society means more goods need to be transported from a warehouse or port to, ultimately, end up on store shelves and in our homes. It also means many drivers spend a lot of hours on the road, often traveling long stretches of highways that are filled with other vehicles, so pre-trip safety inspections and routine maintenance are key to ensure trucks operate properly and safely.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, truck crashes are trending downward. From 2019 to 2020, the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes decreased by 4% (5,033 to 4,842) and those involved in injury crashes decreased by 10% (119,000 to 107,000). Properly functioning brake systems are crucial to safe commercial vehicle operation, accounting for speed and weather conditions. Large trucks, which can weigh up to 80,000 lb. when fully loaded, need the length of up to two football fields to safely stop.

See also: CVSA's Brake Safety Day removed over 750 CMVs

Brakes are designed to hold up under tough conditions but must be inspected and maintained carefully and consistently so they operate and perform properly throughout the vehicle’s life.

There’s another important factor of a brake system’s performance that may not immediately come to mind (or you might not even be aware of)—the authenticity of its components. Counterfeit parts and those that are sold through gray market channels can adversely affect performance and if they aren’t detected in time, could have detrimental consequences.

The cost of counterfeit parts

The Federal Trade Commission estimated counterfeit parts cost the automotive industry $12 billion a year globally, including $3 billion per year in the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show an 86% increase in the number of confiscated automotive parts (14,841 to 27,599) for the 10-year period from 2009 to 2019, with the domestic value of those items increasing by a whopping 497%, from $260.7 million to $1.56 billion. These seizures help protect intellectual property and brand reputation. But what about the parts that go undetected and aren’t seized?

And financial loss isn’t the most important consequence of counterfeit parts.

Original equipment suppliers put braking systems through rigorous testing and quality controls to ensure they perform as intended. Counterfeit parts haven’t undergone that same testing and may not function properly. Safety-critical equipment, like braking systems, airbags or seatbelts, can be compromised if fake parts are installed in a vehicle, which could be the difference between life and death for a driver and others on the road.

Unfortunately, counterfeiting technology is so advanced that the naked eye is insufficient to distinguish between real and fake parts. Additional levels of authentication are necessary to keep fakes out of the supply chain to ensure safe vehicle operation.

The dangers of gray market parts

Gray market parts are real but sold illegally or against company policy. For example, these parts may have been decommissioned for failing quality controls or may be approved for sale in certain countries but not others.  

The challenge gray market parts present is, since they are real parts, they don’t raise red flags and most anti-counterfeiting technology won’t detect them. But, since they aren’t manufacturer-approved, they can also pose safety risks if they’re installed on a vehicle or simply not be covered by a warranty.

Tips to protect against counterfeit and gray market parts 

There are several things we can do to avoid the risks and associated problems that can stem from fake and illegal parts.

  • Buy directly from OEMs: This is the simplest way to avoid counterfeits. Original equipment manufacturers will usually offer a warranty on their parts as well as clear instructions on how to use and maintain them over time.
  • Be wary of red flags like suspicious pricing: If the price of a vehicle part seems too good to be true, especially if it’s significantly less expensive than others on the market, it probably is. It’s likely a red flag that it’s a counterfeit version someone’s trying to pass off as genuine or a gray market item.  
  • Request an authenticity guarantee: If you do find yourself buying from someone other than the manufacturer, check if they offer a guarantee of authenticity and how they’re able to do so. 
  • Implement an anti-counterfeiting/gray market solution: There are a wide variety of electronic, marking and mechanical technologies available to help identify, authenticate and trace products. Alitheon's FeaturePrint uses touchless optical AI to identify the inherent digital “fingerprint” that exists on every item, so no markings or special equipment is needed, just a photo.

In a braking test on a closed course, counterfeit brakes on a BMW traveling at 62 miles per hour caused the vehicle to travel nearly 50 feet past the designated stopping point in an emergency braking scenario. Imagine what that would mean in a real-life scenario on a highway. Now, imagine that same scenario with counterfeit brakes on a 40-ton truck. We cannot afford the risk counterfeit parts pose to human life and public safety.

To protect truck drivers and others who share the roads with them, businesses must implement comprehensive solutions—using everything from common sense to data analytics, to modern technologyto identify any potential counterfeits before they enter circulation. Implementing technological solutions that track, identify and authenticate parts can ensure braking systems meet the highest standards of quality and reliability for the public’s peace of mind and safety.  

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