I've always been a big believer that to reduce automotive fuel consumption and toxic and greenhouse gas emissions, we need to take a three-pronged approach. We need to ask or compel vehicle manufacturers to make more efficient and cleaner vehicles. We need to ask or compel fuel suppliers to provide the fuels that will enable supply of such vehicles (e.g. ethanol, electricity, hydrogen...). And we need to ask or compel drivers to consume less vehicle miles.
Throughout the raging debate on this issue I'd estimate that 95% of the rhetoric focuses on the first two prongs: evil Detroit and evil Big Oil. The American driver gets off the hook pretty easily (unless he or she is foolish enough to park a Hummer on the Berkeley campus!). But let's face it, the cleanest vehicle is the one that is never bought, and the next cleanest is one that is never driven. It takes a consumer to buy and drive cars.
But it is becoming clearer that consumers are grudgingly starting to realize their role in all this. Rather like overweight people who in public blame McDonald's for tempting them, while in private admitting that no one forced them to eat the Big Mac (yours truly can be said to fall into this category), drivers are starting to acknowledge that while Detroit feeds their oil addiction, they are ones who keep visiting the pumps. A recent article in the New Yorker, by economics analyst James Surowiecki, illuminates this development. In essence, it boils down to the point that while the individual driver wants the individual freedom to buy and drive whatever she or he wants, drivers are not happy with the collective result of these individual choices. That is, we might want the freedom to buy the Hummer, but we wish the government would limit their supply somehow, because collectively there are just too many on the road.
Surowiecki makes the analogy to the helmet rule in the NHL: prior to the rule, most players refused to wear helmets, since the devices disadvantaged them (e.g. poorer peripheral vision) -- but in secret ballots the majority of players wanted the League to require helmets, since the safety advantages were obvious.
In the same way, American consumers seem to be coming around to the realization that their individual vehicle choices are collectively irrational. Thus, in polls, the citizenry as a group votes pretty solidly for higher MPG standards... despite individually continuing to seek bigger and heavier vehicles. Politicians should take heart from this: higher MPG standards might not be as toxic an issue as they might think. As Surowiecki concludes: "Sometimes, [ voters ] know, we need to save ourselves from ourselves."