A cement mixer collides with a prison van. Motorists are asked to be on the lookout for 16 hardened criminals.

That joke by Britain’s Ronnie Corbett has nothing to do with the topic of this column.

But I figured a bunch of you would tune out immediately if I launched with the actual topic — the new proposed auto emissions regulations.

Forging the right regulations is obviously a worthwhile exercise, just not a particularly uplifting one, as it usually entails accusatory tones, convoluted excuses, and the spectre of reprimands — not unlike a trip to the vice-principal’s office.

But this round of regulation talk at least has the Obama factor in its favour. The “cool” U.S. president started the whole thing off this May when he announced the new standard that roughly mirrors the proposed California clean air standard, and that it would be enacted by 2016, four years earlier than the original deadline of 2020.

But the most novel aspect of these tough new standards is that they would be national, replacing the patchwork of state legislation that so infuriated the automakers.

Canada will certainly adopt these standards, as it has always desired a North America-wide solution.

So we get a very clean and very universal standard in 2016 that everyone can work towards — but not everyone’s happy.

Some automakers and some industry watchers contend that consumers won’t buy these new super-duper fuel-efficient thingies — because the new standards will surely make them more expensive, and because many won’t fit their lifestyles.

The evidence used by this camp is that many super-efficient vehicles are already on the market, and they’re not exactly flying off the shelves.

That’s why some say the only way to change consumer behaviour here is to raise fuel prices WAY UP. That’s probably a bit too political for most politicians.

So we get this “stick” approach being applied to the automakers, and some “carrots” like Ontario’s proposal to offer rebates between $4,000 and $10,000 for plug-in hybrids and electric cars purchased after July 1, 2010.

Which way is best? That’s a debate not restricted to the auto industry, and one we’re not going to solve today. That’s an eternal debate on how to best influence behaviour in general.

In the DVD release of his film on Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, director James Mangold, said every studio in Hollywood passed on the film, one that went on to garner many awards and much box office cash.

He felt that the only way to encourage studios to make more films like his, which centre on human emotions and human experiences, is to buy tickets to these kinds of movies. If you only buy tickets to the latest comic book recreation film, he wryly noted, that will be only movies Hollywood will make.

That’s why I’m all for these new regulations and/or rebates, in whatever form they take, because I’m not optimistic we will buy tickets to fuel-efficient vehicles on our volition. We’re too easily beguiled by super powers battling each other in high definition.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.