A dealer bulletin obtained by News Ltd reveals that Toyota Australia has identified two suppliers selling counterfeit spiral cables - a crucial part that must be replaced each time a vehicle’s airbags are deployed.
This means that while vehicles never involved in a collision are not at risk, an as-yet unknown number of vehicles repaired outside Toyota's dealer repair network may be equipped with the counterfeit component.
The report adds that testing at Toyota’s Japan headquarters has confirmed a number of dangerous shortcomings in the counterfeit parts, leading to the conclusion that the parts present a “significant risk of airbag non-deployment in an accident”.
The counterfeit parts are understood to be missing genuine gold-plated connectors, while the cable is both poorly crimped and does not use copper wire. Likewise, the plastic locking tabs that secure the spiral cable in place are misaligned or “poorly formed”.
Full details on the scope of the counterfeiting operation are still to be confirmed, and it is unknown if repairers are aware of the component's status as a counterfeit part - which can reportedly be had for as little as $50 each, compared to around $300 as a genuine part.
A dealer, speaking anonymously with News Ltd, is quoted as saying that there is currently “no way of knowing” how many of the fake components have been installed, although it is believed to be in the thousands.
According to the report, the bulletin instructs dealers to check the component’s authenticity during the routine servicing of all incoming customer vehicles.
As yet, no recall has been announced, and this issue is unrelated to the ongoing Takata airbag recall, which centres on a defective inflator system.
A statement issued today by the Department of Infrastructure confirmed that it is working with Toyota and the ACCC "to ascertain whether the part in question poses a safety risk".
"The issue of the allegedly counterfeit nature of the part could also be a matter for the ACCC, should investigation lead to identification of false or misleading claims made about or safety issues with the part," the statement reads.
Toyota Australia has declined to comment on this report, although a spokesperson today confirmed with CarAdvice that Toyota dealers use only genuine parts supplied directly through the company’s own channels.
Chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) Tony Weber, said in a statement to CarAdvice today that this latest issue of counterfeit parts - along with news recently of the Australian Border Force seizing hundreds of counterfeit oil filters before they could enter the supply chain - again highlights the need for diligence in sourcing parts.
"We also stress to independent repairers that they can only be sure a part is genuine if they source it through the manufacturer’s authorised local supply chain," Weber said.
"All Australians deserve to have their vehicle serviced and repaired to a professional standard, which maintains the original integrity of the vehicle. That is why the FCAI continues to work with the independent service and repair industry to ensure the safety of all Australian road users."
Weber added that consumers are encouraged "to speak to their repairer and let them know they want genuine parts used in their vehicle repair".
"If a vehicle needs replacement parts following a collision or during servicing and maintenance, it’s essential that genuine parts are fitted to return the vehicle to its design specifications," he said.
Executive director of the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC) Geoff Gwilym told CarAdvice that repairers are encouraged to deal only with known and trusted suppliers.
"Our view is that repairers should be buying their parts through reputable supply chains that are relied upon and endorsed by the manufacturers. If repairers want to step outside of that chain, and buy counterfeit parts, then they'll take the responsibility of how those parts perform on the vehicle," Gwilym said.
"That can often lead to very deep and protracted discussions under the Australian Consumer Law."
Gwilym said that the VACC does not determine which suppliers a member repairer must use, but original parts are always recommended.
He said that "most people" in the industry understand that "the further down the food chain you go in terms of buying non-genuine parts", the more likely it is that problems will occur.
"There are a number of wise old mechanics out there who have been fitting parts for years and they generally stay with original parts, because they know that often if they're using parts they can't know to be trustworthy, they end up with problems."
Above: A spiral cable assembly discovered by CarAdvice on an international shopping website, listed as Original Equipment and priced at AU$110 with free shipping to Australia.
The current situation, however, may have seen repairers purchase the counterfeit parts with the belief that they were genuine, which could suggest that the suppliers have posed as a trusted supplier or as Toyota itself.
"We would be interested if a VACC member was unwittingly buying counterfeit parts, we would be concerned that there are people in the market selling parts branded 'OE' (Original Equipment)," Gwilym said.
"The issue is that, with the Australian Consumer Law, if there's a problem with the part and you can't go back to the source of that part, then again, you [the repairer] can end up in a protracted argument with a consumer over whether the part was at fault. Can the part be relied upon, can you follow the supply chain back to find the manufacturer of that part?"
Gwilym stressed that consumers should not be afraid to seek clarification from their repairer before work begins.
"One of the things that customers can ask for is, is this part recommended by the manufacturer? Is this an original part, and to actually demand that from the repairer if that's what they want for their car," he said. "There's nothing wrong with asking the repairer to write on the repair form that he has used original parts."
The Department of Infrastructure has confirmed it is investigating this matter. We have updated the body of this article to reflect this new information.