Electric cars weren't killed overnight -- Edison and Ford were still trying to collaborate on a commercially viable model in 1914, and one company still produced up to 2,000 of them as late as 1920 -- but the impact of plentiful, cheap oil kicked the electric car's ass right to the margins of the industry, where they remain even today.
Texas: Why driving to work every morning costs more than your rent.
How It Could Have Changed the World:
Do we need to count down all the ways that gasoline cars have become a problem? How about you instead just flip over to one of the 24-hour news channels. Within 20 minutes or so you'll see a story about a war in an oil-rich country, or global warming, or fluctuating oil prices due to a market full of nervous speculators, or car companies on the verge of bankruptcy as they desperately try to come up with more fuel-efficient options.
Left: Gas prices in May of 2008. Right: Same station in December of the same year.
Now, it's true that when you suggest electric cars as a fix for all that, invariably somebody will pipe up and say, "But the electricity they run on comes from coal. Your 'green' electric cars don't change shit with global warming!"
But you have to understand how electric cars -- especially as they would exist with an extra 100 years of evolution -- would completely change the game. An electric car doesn't care where the electricity comes from -- if they switch your power plant outside town from coal to nuclear/solar/wind, you get to keep the same car. And it's a hell of a lot easier to upgrade a single power plant than it is to slowly, over time, convince a million drivers to buy a new car. Especially one that uses an uncertain new technology.
Man, we learned our lesson the hard way on that one.
In other words, the transition we could be making -- from dirty electric cars to clean electric cars -- would have been about a hundred times easier than the transition from gasoline to electric. And the world wouldn't have to keep a constant, nervous eye on the Middle East the entire time.