Toyota’s CEO Akio Toyoda gets an “A” for his efforts at credibility at yesterday’s Congressional hearing. He seemed sincere, in charge, and determined to get to the bottom of Toyota’s safety problem. His theme, a new commitment “to put our customers first” came through clearly, and was well backed with planed actions.

His remarks suggested that Toyota will begin to significantly decentralize their decision-making in key worldwide markets, much as McDonald’s did as they grew into a global brand, particularly where it affects safety and quality control. I remember from the 70s, when I was mid-America PR chief for Toyota, that big decisions often required trips by U.S. management to make their case in Japan. This slowed down decision-making, and this slow-down is part of what got Toyota in trouble in reacting to their accelerator problems.

In another departure from Japanese tradition, I think there is a good chance Mr. Toyoda will not resign over this issue, which has so damaged their reputation, but rather stay to lead reform. The company now seems to be doing all the right things, both in terms of reputation management and quality control. They are effectively utilizing both mass media (Mr. Toyoda’s good performance on the Larry King Show last night is one example) and social media (web site, Twitter, Facebook) to interact with and inform their customers and demonstrate transparency.

In QC, they are creating a new “Special Committee on Global Quality” management structure, with a senior U.S. executive to be named. But it’s not over: 1) Toyota is yet to rule out possible electronic problems in contributing to sudden acceleration (are our cars to be subject to the same troublesome glitches as our PCs?), 2) the lawsuits growing out of the debacle are just beginning and will keep the issues in the news for months, if not years, and, 3) the impacts on Toyota’s sales and competitive position, the changes in regulatory issues stemming from all this, and the impacts on Toyota’s stock, are all yet to be seen. If Toyota winds up slowing U.S. production, letting go U.S. factory and dealer employees, and having continuing QC/safety issues, their reputation could be further impacted.

As for myself, while I rented a Hertz Camry and drove in comfort and safety through 200 miles of Arizona desert last week, this week I took delivery on a new Buick Enclave (no thanks to Tiger Woods). For most of my adult life, I’ve purchased foreign cars, but a few years ago, I discovered that U.S. iron has dramatically improved in design and quality, and is very well priced. So I’m driving my second Detroit car now. Will be fascinating to see how the future of the automotive industry evolves, as demand, innovation, energy and economy — not to mention further adoption of mass transit — transform lifestyles and global markets.

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