Auto Industry Sales to Soar This Year: AutoNation CEO

The US auto industry is on the fast-track to recovery and will sell one million more vehicles this year than in 2009, Autonation CEO Mike Jackson told CNBC.

Speaking as this year's Detroit auto show enters its third day, Jackson acknowledged that the industry may well not be alive were it not for government intervention.

But he said strong direction from the heads of Ford and General Motors also helped set Detroit back on the right course. Autonation is the largest retailer of new and used vehicles in the United States.

"People know the worst is over and we have some level of credit to put them in a car," Jackson said. "It's still going to be a difficult year but we're going to have a selling rate of 11.5 million units in the US vs. 10.5 (million) in '09."

That sentiment reflects a sea-change from the mood last year, when it was unclear whether the major automakers would survive. The government has since stepped in with a variety of aggressive programs to salvage the industry, including loans, a planned bankruptcy for GM, and the Cash for Clunkers rebate.

"Let's be perfectly frank: The mood at the auto show a year ago was, 'Will there be an auto show in 2010?'" Jackson said. "Quite frankly without government intervention there would be no auto show this year. The American automobile industry would be shut down."

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But Jackson attributed the resurgence to more than government help.

He particularly credited Ford CEO Alan Mulally. "If you're celebrating one person's success at that show, it's Alan Mulally," Jackson said.

Jackson also applauded the industry's push to rejuvenate pickup trucks as a core for sales despite the government's insistence on fuel standards.

"Pickup trucks are going to recover from one million units today to over two million units in three years," Jackson said. "It's a housing play, it's a recovery-in-America play. The replacement of pickup trucks is years behind as far as commercial demand.

"To give up  that segment and walk away from it because of government prodding would be a mistake."