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TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian lawmakers accused Toyota Motor Corp executives on Tuesday of waiting too long to inform the government of problems with faulty accelerators in some of the company's vehicles.
Separately, Canada's transport minister said his department would conduct an investigation into Toyota's actions, and would consider making disclosure laws tougher if necessary.
Toyota, the world's biggest automaker, recalled more than 8 million vehicles in late January, 270,000 of them in Canada, over problems with sticky gas pedals and with floor mats that interfere with gas pedals and could cause unintended acceleration.
"Many Canadians have wondered whether their vehicles are safe, and we regret this has caused our customers both anxiety and inconvenience," said Yoichi Tomihara, chief executive of Toyota Canada Inc.
The company told Transport Canada of the problems with the sticky pedals on January 21, the same day it announced the recall. On January 26, it temporary halted the production of eight of its most popular models in North America as it worked on a fix.
The lawmakers wanted to know why Toyota, which said it knew of the problems in October and began working with pedal supplier CTS Corp on a redesign later in the year, waited so long to inform the government.
"OK, you've got a serious safety problem, you're already talking with your supplier about redesigning the faulty gas pedal, and nobody told Transport Canada or NHTSA (U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) for that matter, until after a recall was issued on January 21. That's what you are telling us," said Jeff Watson, a member of Parliament from the governing Conservative Party.
Stephen Beatty, managing director of Toyota Canada, said that the problem was first identified in Europe, and that Toyota's engineering department in Japan was in charge of dealing with CTS. He added that the company had to make sure it properly identified the problem before classifying it as a defect and informing the government.
He said the company is not obligated to tell the government of any complaints, only of defects, and it takes time to figure out whether a defect exists.
"Once we have identified a problem, we send it to Japan for review by engineering, and they come back to us with a report. As soon as we have that, we trigger (a recall)."
Transport Minister John Baird told reporters after the hearing that his department would look into whether or not Toyota sat on critical information too long and would also look at making the laws for disclosure tougher.
"If we have to raise the bar, make the law tougher with respect to disclosure, that's something we're prepared to do," he said.
"What my department will do, based on the testimony they heard today and based on the work that they've done in the last six months, is investigate Toyota."
In his testimony, Beatty said about 60 percent of the 270,000 affected vehicles in Canada have been fixed and that the company is encouraging individuals to bring their cars to their dealers to have the work done if they haven't already.
He said that there have been no instances in Canada of vehicles that have had the accelerator pedal fix being brought back with same problem.
When asked if there was something he would do differently in handling the problem, Beatty said he should have started the public information campaign around the pedal problem several days earlier, when the first recall message was sent to Transport Canada.
The two-hour hearing was more staid than the U.S. Senate hearing with Toyota in February, where voices were raised and tears were shed, but some MPs were clearly rankled.
"We've just been given a little bit of a demonstration of somebody passing the buck," said opposition Liberal MP Joe Volpe at the end of the hearing.
"I'm absolutely flabbergasted ... Mr. Beatty says the government never asked us for any information, so we're not obliged to give it, and the government says, well you guys are at fault, you should have given us the information because we needed it in order to provide safety and security."
During the hearing, Yoshi Inaba, president and chief operating officer, Toyota Motor North America, said that the company was doing all it could to comply with government requests for information in Canada and the United States.
Toyota Canada employs about 7,000 people and has the capability to produce more than 420,000 vehicles a year. About 75 percent of the vehicles it makes in Canada are exported to the United States.
Additional reporting by Louise Egan in Ottawa; editing by Peter Galloway