Toyota executive sees U.S. avg gas price up to $3.50/gallon

DETROIT (Reuters) - Gasoline prices in the United States this year will rise to an average of about $3.50 a gallon, a top Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T executive said on Monday.

“What we see is national average gas prices will remain above $3 a gallon through 2011, approaching $3.50,” Bob Carter, the Toyota brand chief for the United States, told Reuters at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

In states with high taxes and other costs, such as California, prices could hit $4 a gallon, the highest level since 2008, he said.

Last week, Toyota officials said U.S. gas prices were heading toward $4 a gallon this year.

The average U.S. price now is about $3.10 per gallon of regular gasoline. Average prices are 12 percent higher than they were a year ago.

In the summer of 2008, the U.S. average price hit a record high of $4.11 per gallon. At the time, U.S. automakers were caught flat-footed without the ability to ramp up production of small- and medium-sized cars.

Carter said the industry has seen a shift again toward higher sales of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

He also said Toyota expects U.S. light vehicle sales in 2011 of about 12.5 million, and sees its own sales growth outpacing the industry’s expected 9 percent increase.

Toyota officials said last week the company expected a double-digit percentage gain in 2011 sales.

While Toyota and other automakers are projecting sales growth in 2011, Carter said U.S. consumer confidence would remain “somewhat fragile” in the first half of the year due to high unemployment and gas prices.

Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; editing by John Wallace