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Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.’s head of automotive operations said Thursday the Japanese carmaker’s Mirai fuel-cell car could eventually have as big an impact on the industry as its Prius hybrid.

“We look back now and say the Prius changed the industry,” Robert Carter told The Detroit News on Thursday. “I think we’re going to be looking back and saying Mirai changed it all.”

Toyota unveiled the hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric car at the Los Angeles Auto Show last month. The vehicle will be available in late 2015 with a starting price of $57,500, but could be more than $10,000 cheaper after tax credits and rebates.

The biggest challenge to fuel cell vehicles remains the charging station infrasctructure. Carter anticipates having about 23 charging stations built by the time the vehicle launches, mostly in the Los Angeles and San Francisco area and said the car’s growth would be incremental.

“I really think there’s an opportunity where (fuel cell) is going to be the dominant technology 20 to 30 years out,” he said. “It’s not going to be a 24-month overnight success story. It’s going to be steady growth.”

Toyota isn’t the first player in the fuel cell space. Hyundai launched a Tucson fuel cell compact crossover earlier this year. The advantage of fuel cell over battery-powered electric cars, proponents say, is that they charge faster and can go farther on a single charge.

Toyota offers the Prius hybrid, and also offers a RAV4 battery-powered electric car, but Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division, said there’s more potential with fuel cell vehicles.

“In some respects, the fuel cell is our electrification strategy,” he said in an interview. “We think it has an awful lot of advantages ... and we’re pretty excited to be one of the pioneers with it.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN

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