Like it or not, the fuel economy rules for vehicles are changing.  In what is being called a historic announcement, the administration last week unveiled its new set of fuel-economy rules, which call for manufacturers to reach an overall fleet average of 35.5 mpg by 2016.  That means passenger cars would need to reach a lofty 39 mpg, and light trucks would need to reach 30 mpg.  For those of you who don’t know, the current standard is 25 mpg, so in many ways, this is, in fact, historic.

I realize that 2016 seems light-years away – or at least it does to me.  But that’s less than 7 years down the road. Yes, these new rules will obviously affect automakers. In fact, the AP reported that they “will have to pour billions more dollars into new technologies to help them meet those goals”. And although I believe that our future hinges on the automakers' ability to develop technologies that can take us into the next generation; the auto industry should not be required to carry the entire burden.  We, consumers, have a big responsibility as well.  The only way we’re going to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of oil, and ensure a cleaner environment for generations to come, is if we embrace these new standards and advanced technologies; even if it means we have to shell out more at the dealership, pass up the SUV for a smaller car, drive less miles and upgrade more often.

Given the estimated increase of $1,300 per vehicle by the end of the program, some experts believe that the new standards will result in consumers holding on to their less efficient cars for longer, which could offset the environmental benefits.  In fact, USA Today reported, “A 2009 Stanford University analysis found that 20% of the emissions reductions made by raising fuel standards are offset by people who hang onto their gas-guzzlers.”  This may be the case.  But, I tend to have more faith in the American people than the experts do.  I believe that people are very eager for the opportunity to reduce their personal footprint – even if it requires a sacrifice.  For example, I have a 2007 Subaru Outback (and a closet hippie for a husband).  We currently have pretty good gas mileage, but as soon as a hybrid and/or more fuel-efficient version of this car becomes available, we’ll probably buy it; no matter how long we’ve owned our vehicle.  The same goes for my Father-in-law and his Tahoe. I think many people – hippies or not – will do the same.    

At the end of the day, the only way we’re going to drive ourselves out of this layer of smog is through innovation and advanced technology.  Whether those technologies are developed by the automakers in Detroit, by students in programs like the EcoCAR Challenge, or in the MIT labs, it will be critical for us to find a way to take the next generation vehicle design concepts to the road.  And as these new solutions become available, we – consumers, need to embrace them.  Our future depends on it.  

– Contributed by Sarah Ellis.  Follow her @sakerellis