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Toyota Requests U.S. Federal Exemption for its Fuel Cell Car

July 2, 2014

Last week, Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled its hydrogen fuel cell car called the FCV and announced that it will be available in the United States in 2015. However, before the world’s largest automaker can sell this vehicle in the U.S., it needs to overcome a hurdle in the form of a safety rule. Toyota plans to do this by asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for an exemption.

The safety rule that prevents Toyota from selling FCV in U.S. shores is the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 305, which pertains to the packaging of high-voltage components in electric vehicles. This rule requires auto manufacturers to isolate high-voltage systems to prevent vehicle occupants and first responders from being electrocuted in the event of the crash.

This is a good rule in terms of vehicle safety, but not in the case of the FCV. As Toyota noted in its petition to the NHTSA, its hydrogen fuel cell car does not meet the aforementioned requirement. The FCV, which produces electricity with hydrogen, may not be able to function with a mechanism that prevents electric shocks in low-speed crashes.

Toyota offered to address the issue of possible electrocution through insulation. The automaker told federal safety regulators that it would protect passengers and first responders from electric shocks by insulating high-voltage cables and wires as well as installing metal barriers around electrical components such as the motor, battery and the fuel-cell stack.

The Japanese auto manufacturer, which is also the maker of the Prius hybrid hatchback, is specifically requesting for a two-year exemption from FMVSS No. 305. It remains to be seen if the NHTSA would grant the company’s request, though federal regulators have a good reason to do so. Aside from having a solution to the electrocution issue, Toyota will be selling a limited number of the hydrogen fuel cell cars. According to the carmaker, only 2,500 units will be delivered per year.

Toyota’s FCV is similar to electric cars such as Tesla Motors Inc.’s Model S sedan because it is also powered by electric motors. What makes it—and other fuel cell cars—distinct from battery-powered vehicles is that it need not be plugged into power outlets to recharge. Hydrogen gas allows the vehicle to generate electricity by passing through the fuel cell stack, which consists of plastic membranes and platinum plates.

Fuel cell stacks are pricey because of the precious metals required in their manufacture. Toyota’s FCV is proof of how expensive the technology can be—the hydrogen fuel cell car will be sold in Japan with a starting price of 7 million yen or $69,000.

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