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For a 14-year-old who wants a car when he turns 16, perhaps a Hummer is the safest choice — second only to "no car at all.

Several years ago, I made a bold offer.

While he was still in elementary school, I told my older son, now 14, that I would give him $1,000 for every year past the age of 16 that he delayed getting a driver's license.

He bit immediately and led me to believe that I'd better get my hands on $70,000 pretty fast because he might never drive and he wanted to be paid in a lump sum, not an annuity.

I rejoiced, thinking about how much I would save on insurance premiums. The risk stats on young male drivers are sobering — very few emerge from their teen years accident-free.

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Mark Kennedy

Too, I was comparing my son "the athlete" with my son the "emerging driver." A soccer player since age 3, he has a reputation as a fiery defender who plays on the edge of control. Good for Talladega Superspeedway, perhaps, but not a great skill set for the Ridge Cut at rush hour.

Well, I've learned there's a big difference in what a 9-year-old says and what a 14-year-old thinks. My son is ready to forego his $1,000-a-year windfall and apply for a learner's permit on the day he turns 15.

Not only that, but he has told me he will require a Hummer. I pointed to the sky and told him to watch closely for pigs flying overhead because that would be an excellent harbinger of the arrival of his vehicle. I've watched some folks buy their teenagers fancy cars and I'm struck by the thought: That's more about the parents than the kids.

I have, however, softened my stance on my son's driving. Now that his younger brother is playing select soccer, too, the thought of transferring some of the transportation responsibilities to a teenager actually sounds appealing. Although I'm thinking his transportation might be more like a bubble-wrapped 1998 Honda Civic.

Anyway, as this hypothetical learner's permit is looking more and more likely, my son has started peppering me with questions about driving. On a trip home from Nashville the other day, he was sitting in the front passenger's seat and admitted he was perplexed by the fact that he could see nothing useful in the side mirrors. I explained that was because they were adjusted for me, the driver, not him, the passenger.

"Oh," he said.

He pointed to the shifter, and said, "Now, tell me about this."

My Dad and I used to talk about cars endlessly. By the time I was 14, I could name virtually every car on the road and tell you something about its mechanicals. I didn't own a car with an automatic transmission until I was close to 40. That my son didn't know what to call the shifter — bless his heart — tells me that modern kids think of cars as, at best, magic carpets and, at worst, common appliances. I tried to explain the difference between a manual transmission and and automatic transmission, but I realized my words were falling flat. In order to understand transmissions, you have to be vaguely aware that cars have gears.

My son seemed to be more interested chatting me up about the auto industry's move toward autonomous automobiles. I think he would be glad if we skipped straight to self-driving cars, which would make his driver's license road test so much easier.

The more I thought about this, the more I liked his line of thinking.

Unlike boys of my generation, the muscle car era, today's teens don't seem to lust for the power and independence that a fast car offers. They have grown up in a safety-first era in which radical risk-taking is not the norm. That's a long way from the "watch-this" mentality of my buddies in high school, who saw automobiles as skateboards with 200-horsepower engines.

I told my son that autonomous cars are possible now, but they still have kinks to be worked out. For instance, I read about an automated car recently that recognized and respected yellow lines on the highway but refused to yield to concrete retaining walls. Good luck with that.

I predict that, before my 14-year-old son turns 30, self-driving cars will be the norm. They will be so much safer than actively driven cars, insurance companies will demand the switch.

That will be a tragedy for folks like me for whom driving is a thrilling — if semi-barbaric — hobby. Future generations will see the risks in today's conventional driving as imponderable. "What kind of people would risk their lives in a car to go get a gallon of milk?" they'll ask.

And, alas, the answer to that question will eventually come back: Nobody.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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