WASHINGTON-Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America, says that, despite the gloomy headlines about Ford and GM, the overall U.S. automotive industry is doing well and has a strong future.

In a speech before the National Press Club, Press also emphasized that Toyota and the industry as a whole have a responsibility to help government address the environmental and auto-safety issues currently confronting North America.

According to Press, in the United States "business is steady, and as America's population approaches 300 million, the future is full of promise." In spite of volatile gas prices, rising interest rates and increasing raw material costs, Press said the industry is successfully responding to changing conditions and will continue to grow. Specifically, he predicted total U.S. sales in 2006 would top 17 million, making it among the top sales years in history.

According to Press, the continuing globalization of the automotive industry is both promoting new technologies and providing jobs in the United States. "In fact, international automakers have contributed almost all of the growth in the U.S. motor vehicle industry for the past 10 years," Press said, citing a recent study by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR, Ann Arbor, MI).

Today, Toyota directly employs over 38,000 in North America, and its total investment is valued at approximately $16.8 billion. Even as the Big Three domestic automakers close factories and lay off workers in the United States, Toyota continues to expand. By 2008, the company will have 15 plants in North America, with a total production capacity of 2 million cars and trucks annually. In all, according to a 2005 CAR study, Toyota, along with its dealers and suppliers, has created nearly 400,000 U.S. jobs.

With regard to the environment, Press told the National Press Club that automakers need to work with government to improve fuel-economy standards and reduce greenhouse gases in a way that doesn't "severely damage" the health of the auto industry.

"I believe the time is right to enlist the immense talent and might of our industry to help solve some of the key issues resulting from a car-loving world, including oil dependency, air pollution, traffic accidents and global warming," Press said. "It's time for us to stop being the 'against' industry and to come out strong 'for' something important, like a better earth and a better quality of life."

As evidence for the fact that there is a market for efficient cars, Press cited the ongoing demand for Toyota hybrid vehicles. To date, Toyota has sold more than 351,000 hybrids in the United States, since first introducing the Prius hybrid nearly 10 years ago. There is currently a 2-month wait to purchase the latest Prius model.

Press noted that since half of all the vehicles bought by Americans are trucks, vans or SUVs, the real challenge is to find ways to make those vehicles efficient as well. "We can't disregard the needs of our earth, nor can we afford to ignore the needs of our customers," Press said. He went on to emphasize that automakers must strike a balance in their lineups between big trucks, SUVs, gas-electric hybrids, clean diesels, flex-fuel vehicles, plug-in hybrids and, eventually, hydrogen fuel cells.

In the area of safety, Press said global automakers are offering more safety features than ever before, and that traffic fatalities on U.S. roads today are the lowest since government began tracking accident statistics some 40 years ago.