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Toyota asks U.S. for rule exemption to sell fuel-cell car

Toyota Motor executive vice president Mitsuhisa Kato introduces

Toyota Motor executive vice president Mitsuhisa Kato introduces the company's sedan-style hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on June 25, 2014, during a news conference at a Toyota Motor showroom in Tokyo. Credit: Getty Images / Kazuhiro Nogi

Toyota Motor Corp. asked the U.S. auto-safety regulator for a two-year exemption from a rule governing electric cars to clear the way for the company to sell its new fuel-cell vehicle.

The rule, called FMVSS No. 305, requires carmakers to isolate high-voltage parts in electric cars in the event of a crash. The company’s new car, which uses hydrogen to generate electricity, doesn’t fully meet this requirement because a mechanism for protecting against electrical shocks in lower- speed crashes would render its vehicle inoperable, Toyota said in a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted by the regulator this month.

Toyota said its car instead will protect occupants and first responders from electrical shocks by insulating high-voltage cables and surrounding components such as the fuel-cell stack, motor and battery with metal barriers. The company, which hasn’t disclosed sales targets for the fuel-cell car in its media statements, said it will limit deliveries of the vehicle to 2,500 units a year.

Toyota last week said its fuel-cell car, which features triangular air intakes beneath the headlights and a raised front hood, will go on sale in Japan for the yen equivalent of about $69,000  before April. The carmaker is embracing fuel cells over pure-electric technologies used by the likes of Tesla Motors Inc. to comply with zero-emission rules.

The Japanese company, the world’s biggest carmaker, said the electrical safety of the fuel-cell car will at least be equivalent to those complying with NHTSA’s standards, Toyota said.

While fuel-cell cars are propelled entirely by electric motors like those in Tesla’s $71,000 Model S, they don’t need to be plugged into power outlets to store energy. Instead, hydrogen gas passes through a stack of plastic membranes and platinum dusted plates to produce electricity. The stacks remain expensive because of the precious metals needed to build them.

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