DETROIT -- U.S. light-vehicle sales will continue in the high 16 million to low 17 million range for the next "several years," AutoNation Inc. CEO Mike Jackson told the Detroit Economic Club.
He declined to specify how long sales would be that high but said "it's hard to go beyond three years" with forecasts.
Jackson also predicted that gasoline prices will remain low as the U.S. improves its ability to produce oil and become less energy dependent on foreign nations and that credit will remain readily available without running the risk of an auto-lending bubble.
"I'm extremely optimistic," Jackson said. "I'm optimistic about the American economy and the growth rate, the oil industry. I see 17 million units next year."
He added: "Next year's going to be one of the all-time best years in the history of the auto industry."
Jackson said low gasoline prices help spur sales of high-priced pickups and SUVs. But cheap gasoline also creates a challenge to dealers.
"When we move below $3 a gallon" for gasoline, "we're going to see a stampede" away from fuel-efficient vehicles, Jackson said.
He said he worries that automakers will overproduce vehicles and then use complex incentive programs to sell them. An oversupply of inventory is costly to dealers, Jackson said, while incentive programs devalue the vehicles and can lead to dealers undermining one another in pricing.
In remarks after his speech, Jackson said auto financing will hold strong over the next few years. He does not worry about consumers taking out longer auto loans.
"What you have to look at is: What is the average loan length? That's all that matters," Jackson said. "Over the last several years it grew from 61 months to 63 months. It's nothing; that's really no movement."
American consumers "pay their car loans, and they pay them off fast," he said. The average 63-month loan gets paid off in 36 months, he said, and if a loan isn't paid, "you can go out and get it" by repossessing the vehicle. c