05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Toyota Still Different?

Tokyo -- I'm here in Japan as part of a California State Blue-Ribbon Commission set up by Treasurer Bill Lockyer to see whether we can persuade Toyota to change its plans to shut down its plant in Fremont and to keep it open to produce hybrid cars. I've been part of the Fremont story since before Toyota opened this plant (in a joint venture with GM) as its first foray into making cars in the U.S. The Fremont plant has served as tangible evidence to Californians -- who are Toyota's best market -- that there is a "Toyota Way,"  and that it's different.

As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, "the plant has won myriad awards for its quality and productivity, is in the heart of Toyota's key U.S. market and has an experienced workforce with a union that time and again has proved willing to work in partnership with the company." But in announcing -- for very flimsy reasons -- that it plans to shut down the Fremont plant in April, Toyota is sending a signal to its best market that maybe Toyota is no longer that different.

I served for decades as an informal environmental adviser to the joint venture, and was consistently impressed by how Toyota handled environmental issues. And for decades U.S. automakers really didn't offer Toyota any competition for environmentally motivated auto customers like myself (Corolla, Camry, now Prius). But that's no longer true -- so Toyota is taking a big risk.

As I put it in my letter to Akio Toyoda, the company's president: 

I was heartbroken when Toyota announced its plans to shut the plant. California, and the Bay area in particular, are the heart of Toyota's customer base. Toyota's presence in the Bay area as a manufacturer, not just a retailer, has been an important part of that bond. And at this time of suffering and distress for both the state and for Toyota, it seemed tragic and unnecessary to break this bond. Further, California is moving forward now with a new Zero Emission Vehicle program and greenhouse gas standards for vehicles that will grow the need for hybrid vehicles. California's leadership in clean vehicles will drive up demand for the very best and Toyota can show its commitment to the consumers in this state by bringing hybrid manufacturing to NUMMI. The market is here for your vehicles and the NUMMI plant is the place to manufacture them.

But can Toyota change its mind, now that it has announced and planned to shut Fremont? I'm here to meet with them tomorrow. We'll see how well the Toyota Way is doing.