Chiefly, does Toyota — on the verge of becoming the world's biggest automaker — have a special obligation to be a leader on the planet's top issue, climate change?
The obvious answer is "yes," say environmental activists. Toyota executives say they are willing to lead — in their own way and in cooperation with other companies.
"We tend to want to work within the industry," says Josephine Cooper, the company's top executive in Washington. Cooper is group vice president of government and industry affairs for Toyota Motor North America Inc.
"We think we can accomplish more within the industry context than we can jumping out solo, both drawing attention to ourselves and isolating ourselves," says Cooper, 62.
But wanting to be part of the pack is precisely the problem, says John DeCicco, 55, senior fellow for automotive strategies with Environmental Defense.
"They've been in kind of a me-too mode," he says. In U.S. policy debates, especially on fuel economy standards, Toyota is "hiding beneath the Big 3's skirts," he contends.
Sierra Club leaders, who in the past held Toyota up as an example of a car company willing to exceed standards, call the automaker's alignment with the Detroit 3 in this year's congressional fuel economy debate "deeply disappointing."
DeCicco says Toyota should "demonstrate in the climate policy arena the kind of leadership they have been able to demonstrate in their business strategy both here and globally."
Environmental Defense is not considered a radical organization. It focuses on science-based research, works with businesses and governments and recommends market-based remedies.
Environmental Defense was a founding member early this year of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of environmental organizations and big businesses. The group calls for a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions. The first automaker to join was General Motors. Ford Motor Co. and the former DaimlerChrysler followed.
At this writing, Toyota was considering membership.
Toyota was an early member of the business council of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. It remains the only automaker member. The center is a leading advocacy group for polices to reduce greenhouse gases while maintaining economic vitality.
Despite such ties, no one should expect Toyota to distance itself from the rest of the auto industry on global warming proposals, Cooper emphasizes.
She says Toyota's collaborative approach is a reason that most automakers this year for the first time favored legislation in Congress to raise fuel economy standards — with specific targets and timetables.
"Still people don't understand what a big deal that was" for the industry, she says.
For now, in the United States, the corporate average fuel economy program is the best way to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, Cooper says.
"Let's do what we can do within that," she says, instead of getting into politically treacherous fuel or carbon taxes or into highly complex and untested cap-and-trade programs.
This measured approach is a Toyota tradition and is espoused from the very top of the company.
In an interview in Japan with Automotive News, Toyota Motor Corp. President Katsuaki Watanabe had this to say about coping with climate change:
"The automobile industry has a certain percentage of involvement and contribution. We're fully aware of that. That's why we're doing our utmost to develop the technology.
"Among the industry people, we have a full discussion of technology matters, and what is the best technology to pursue, and then provide that information to the government regulatory agencies. Then it's up to the government regulators to decide what's the appropriate approach for regulation," said Watanabe, 65, through an interpreter.
Even though Toyota was one of the first automakers to acknowledge the automobile's role in climate change, company executives from all of its major markets are discussing the need for a new global position on climate change for future debates, Cooper says.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew center, says organization leaders would like Toyota and other leading businesses to be more outspoken. But sometimes they help in ways that aren't well publicized.
She notes that Toyota sent representatives to Pew-sponsored conferences in 2004 and 2005 aimed at planning for a global climate treaty to follow the Kyoto accord. The Kyoto treaty, completed at the end of 1997, expires in 2012.
Japan was among 174 nations that ratified the treaty, which generally requires developed nations to reduce their overall emissions below 1990 levels. The United States rejected the treaty.
Claussen, 62, a former Clinton administration official, adds about Toyota, "I would like to see them be even more vocal at the time when there are negotiations on what a framework (for the next treaty) should be, and to make their views known because they are so important on a global basis in the auto industry. That is a big and growing part of the greenhouse problem."
For the moment, Toyota's products are the more visible representation of where it stands.
As a profit-driven business, Toyota has an obligation to compete in those market segments where there is consumer demand, including all kinds of trucks, executives say.
At the same time, the company is working on future alternatives, such as fuel cells, and is extending hybrid technology throughout its lineup.
While the strategy means a family car such as the Camry Hybrid can achieve a combined city-highway rating of 34 mpg, it also produces seeming anomalies like the Lexus LS 600h L and its meager 21 mpg.
Toyota and Lexus executives defend their new flagship. They say it provides V-12 performance, like the best European luxury cars, but with better-than-V-8 fuel economy. And it lets luxury buyers feel they are contributing to fuel conservation, they say.
Cooper, a lobbyist but well-schooled in engineering, calls the car, which has a base price of $104,765, "a technological marvel."
"In the policy debate, we forget that people really are passionate" about vehicles, she says. "A lot of people who come in to drive hybrids, they think about the green, they think about all that. At the same time they are also thinking, I want something with some pop and some gee-whiz."