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Safety concerns arise with increased use of cheap imported brakes

Montu Khokhar, chief operating officer of Nucap, shows the corrosion and wear on a low-grade brake pad at the company’s research and development centre in Toronto last Thursday. Nucap uses only steel that has been pickled and oiled, not black steel.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Companies in the brake business are sounding the alarm about imported brake pads that they say represent a safety hazard.

Brake pads made with cheap materials, imported from low-cost countries and installed on vehicles when the original equipment is worn out need to be subject to safety standards and regulated, senior executives in the brake industry say.

Ray Arbesman, chief executive officer of Toronto-based Nucap Industries Inc., believes imports from low-cost countries have become so dominant in the North American market for replacement brakes that the risks to drivers are similar to the Firestone tire crisis of the early 2000s.

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At that time, substandard tires led to the deaths of more than 200 people in rollover crashes and, eventually, more stringent requirements for tires.

"If we didn't have Firestone, people would keep on getting killed on the roads every day," Mr. Arbesman said. "Brakes are as important as tires. There should not be a dead brake on a car."

While there are standards for the brakes on new vehicles – and almost every single component on a car, even those unrelated to safety – there are no regulations governing replacement brake pads installed during the tens of millions of brake jobs that are performed in North America annually and no way for consumers to determine whether their mechanics are installing a quality product.

"I could give you a laundry list of people who make a good, safe aftermarket product," said Jack Carney, CEO of FDP Virginia Inc., of Tappahannock, Va. "The problem is, at this particular point there's no way for the consumer or even the mechanic to differentiate."

And while brake pads from low-cost countries are less expensive to make than those manufactured in North America, consumers aren't receiving the benefits, added Rick Jamieson, president and co-founder of brake maker ABS Friction Inc. of Guelph, Ont.

But safety concerns need to be addressed, the executives said.

For Nucap, the key issue is the steel plates on a brake pad, which hold in place what is called friction material. The friction material is the part of the pad that hits the brake rotor when a driver hits a brake pedal and thus causes the car to stop.

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Nucap makes the plates – known as backing plates – along with some of the other steel components in brakes and brake pads.

The problem with the imports from low-cost countries is the steel used in the pads, Mr. Arbesman said. It's called black steel because it has a black tinge, and even though it gets painted, it rusts.

At Nucap's research centre in Toronto, Mr. Arbesman pulled out boxes of brake pads where the backing plates have rusted and separated from the friction material, which means the brakes don't work the way they should.

Nucap uses only steel that has been pickled and oiled. Pickling removes rust and scale from steel and the oil coating prevents rust. The oil is removed when the backing plates are assembled into a brake pad.

The problem came to light when Nucap opened a plant in China, Mr. Arbesman said, and customers complained that its plates were four or five cents more expensive than those sold by other backing plate makers.

"We were buying steel from a German company that is pickled and oiled," he said. "We started seeing that everybody we compete against is using black steel. That's when our eyes opened. We said this is no good as a safety feature. … you can't have this cancer embedded underneath the paint."

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Backing plates on average cost about 55 cents. The failure of parts costing just pennies can lead to deaths, lawsuits and recalls costing billions of dollars, as Ford Motor Co. found out during the Firestone crisis and General Motors Co. discovered when defective ignition switches costing about 60 cents in some of its compact cars led to stalling, loss of steering and failure of airbags to deploy.

Nucap's insistence on using pickled steel has led to a dispute with a key customer, Robert Bosch GmbH, which has pulled its business from Nucap.

The loss of the Bosch business has caused layoffs of about 25 per cent of Nucap's North American work force of 600 people.

Estimates vary on how much of the North American brake-pad market has been captured by imports from low-cost countries. Mr. Arbesman puts it at between 50 per cent and 55 per cent. Mr. Carney believes it's as high as 80 per cent.

"To my knowledge, no new-car manufacturer makes brakes or brake pads with black steel," said Mr. Carney of FDP, which makes the friction material.

He noted, however, that black steel is one of many safety issues on replacement parts for brakes, all stemming from the lack of government regulations.

"There's nothing on the calipers, there's nothing on the rotors, there's nothing on the friction material," he said.

There are regulations in Europe regarding replacement brake pads and brake shoes, but there are no requirements on backing plates or how the friction material is attached to the plates.

There have been attempts to persuade North American regulators to introduce standards for the parts within brakes and brake pads, but even the parts on original equipment brakes don't have to meet specific government requirements, said Larry Pavey, who is president Federated Auto Parts, an auto-parts distribution business based in Staunton, Va., and a 20-year veteran of the brake-manufacturing industry.

Brakes on new vehicles have to meet a stopping-distance test, Mr. Pavey noted.

"What that says is the brake stops the vehicle in X amount of feet, with X amount of pressure. But it doesn't really tell you about the components and how the components have to work."

Mr. Carney said there should be a way for consumers to be able to determine whether the brake pads they're buying have been tested and meet minimum safety standards, either through their mechanic or through aftermarket parts suppliers.

He has his own method of making sure his brake pads are safe.

"I do them myself here in the lab," he said.

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About the Authors
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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