CNN — in 2013.
Overall auto sales are still far below the average of 16.7 million vehicles a year in the decade prior to 2008, when the bottom fell out of the industry.
But sales for 2012 are poised to be up nearly 40% from the low point in 2009, when GM and Chrysler needed federal bailouts and bankruptcy just to survive, and the economy was in the throes of a great recession.
It also represented a much quicker rebound in sales than had been forecast a year or two ago. It wasn't long ago that most analysts were expecting the industry to take until the middle or even the end of the decade for sales to top 15 million.
"The feeling was it was going to be a much longer, more drawn-out recovery," said Schuster. "It's ahead of everyone's expectation back [in 2010]."
The rebound has itself been good for the U.S. economy.
The most recent figures from the Labor Department show that employment at auto plants and their parts suppliers grew by 55,400, or nearly 8%, over the 12 months ended in November, and automakers have announced plans for more hiring in the months ahead. Auto dealers have added another 25,400 jobs over the same period.
And those 80,800 jobs don't capture all the additional hiring at other companies that benefit from auto industry spending, from makers of steel, aluminum, paint and carpeting, to advertising firms and other media companies.