Somehow I became engrossed in the daily routine for a week straight, and had not become aware of any news at all relating to the bus strike. I wasn't the only one either – I would have at least understood that something was amiss if there had been nobody else at the bus stop when I arrived with my ten-year-old son. There were other people, though. There were a couple of high school kids and an old woman sitting on the bench in the quaint shelter, balancing her purse on her lap and staring into the middle distance.
The boy is old enough to catch the bus by himself but too nervous, bored, or both to wait at the stop alone. Each morning I wait with him and see him onto one of the two busses that go to his school, initially cautioning him away from the ones that take a different route downtown. As his 487 bus approached, the woman leaned and squinted to identify if it was hers and then relaxed back into her seat when she'd understood it wasn't. One of the high school kids picked up his bag from the footpath and then dumped it back down as he also identified that he'd need to wait a little longer.
The 487 indicated, then pulled over. The doors swung open. I frowned in confusion.
Where the driver should be, was a large, black bulkhead. It looked almost like a fridge, with three rectangular sides at the back, near the window and facing the door. Its base was a steel plate bolted into the floor at each corner. The side that faced the steering wheel – or where the steering wheel should be – sloped down from the top. Instead of a steering wheel existing, the steering column appeared to have been extended with a shaft that disappeared into this sloped front side. A LED display the size of a shoebox lid was mounted on the side facing the door and abruptly illuminated with the word “BOARD.”
I was stunned. I grabbed the boy's arm as he absent-mindedly set out to obey the LED display's command without verifying the source of its authority. I knew the bus drivers' union was fighting with the state bus authority. The grievances were about wages and where buses were built. I knew that trials of driverless vehicles had taken place overseas and even here, but they were heavily controlled trials of small vehicles. Almost all the ones I'd read had been in corporate campuses or former Olympic athlete villages. This appeared to be a driverless bus in an inner-city suburb that I'd never heard was being trialled. My mind raced as I figured out if there was time to return home, grab the car, and drive the boy in.
“Cool!” Oh, to be a ten-year-old and think every innovation was an unqualified good, even safe, thing. “Dad, c'mon, it's awesome!” he urged. There wasn't time to get him to school in the car and make the gym, and for this to be on the road, it must've been trialled extensively. I stood on my toes trying to satisfy an expectation that some sort of human supervisor was sitting in the first row of seats, ready to intervene where necessary. Nobody was obvious, there were only two other people on the bus. The “BOARD” sign flashed, and a beeping sound came from somewhere. The big black box was at the end of its patience. “Fine, have a good day. I'll see you this afternoon.” I resigned.
I searched for “driverless bus Sydney” on my phone while I crossed the road, with only one eye on the “walk” signal. There weren't many results.
I was in the office by 8:30 am and was immediately consumed by back-to-back meetings all morning, with my only outside-world contact a text message to my wife. “Did you know there are driverless busses on the roads?” I didn't notice any reply. My phone was face down, silent and with vibrate off so I could concentrate on the day's business. As the final meeting of the morning broke, and my thoughts turned to lunch, I picked up my phone and checked it. A “wow” face emoji from my wife to my contextless message about the driverless bus, a missed call from the school, a text message from the school asking me to call the school, and a notification that I had an email with the subject “unexplained absence:” and my son's full name.
My heart lept into my throat. I called the school and, in a panic, protested to the front office that he had been put on the bus as normal. This “as normal” part was entirely incorrect; there were huge departures from normal regarding the bus. However, before catching my thoughts, I was told that the school has a protocol to contact the police immediately. I should be at the school as soon as possible to meet with them. I walked out of my office building, accidentally leaving my keys on my desk, and hailed a cab.
Mid-morning traffic isn't so bad. I was at the school within twenty minutes. There were police outside. I obviously identified myself with my panicked face, and three officers, a young woman and two young men, came and talked to me with their hands out and gesturing downwards in some sort of attempt to cast a spell to calm me down.
I can't remember my initial exact wording, but the net effect was to protest that a robotic bus had kidnapped my child. It's not unreasonable really, that they quite deliberately put me in the back of a police car and took me back to the station.
I managed to maintain silence on the 10 minute drive back to the station. My mind was racing, repeatedly going over the same complete lack of evidence or facts, trying to make them tell me something. The bus pulled up, the doors opened, there was some sort of mechanical or computational thing operating the bus, and in a rush I abandoned what should've been an easy decision process with an obvious alarming conclusion. As the police car parked in the area behind the police station and I was taken inside, I still had no better answers.
Taken to a small meeting (interrogation?) room, I nodded numbly as I was advised the conversation would be recorded. The questions were infuriating. “Was he a happy child?” “What would you say was the most upsetting thing that's happened at home the last few weeks?” I was an inch away from exploding that there wasn't a psychological explanation for this, that it wasn't a case of a child who was scared or disgruntled, that they weren't going to find him in a park on a bench hugging his knees and frowning obstinately at some pre-teen grievance. The only thing stopping me from desparate yelling, was a gnawing internal monologue reminding me that my counter-argument to a runaway son inquiry, was a robot bus kidnapped him.
90 minutes into the meeting (interrogation?) with the same infuriating questions trying to establish my son had fled my parenthood, one of the officers received a text message – judging by the brief illumination of his screen – and left the room. One of the two remaining officers, the woman, paused the recording via a laptop and advised this was neccessary because someone had left. No sooner had she done so, that the officer who'd left returned.
He'd been found.
Any attempt to get information from the officers in the car on the way was futile. There was a lot of radio chatter, and the cop in the passenger seat would turn to me in the back saying “we don't know yet” every time I opened my mouth. We were heading out of the inner suburbs, and spent 15 minutes on the freeway before getting off at a more industrial outer suburb (I noticed the power poles were wood), and driving briefly along its main road before pulling into a comercial/industrial park, where a bus was parked in the middle of a car park that would fit a few hundred employees of the nearby plant. It currently held only the bus, three ambulances, four other police cars, and what appeared to be a van from a rental company – “Hertz” decal down the side.
The boy jumped up from the attention of a couple of paramedics and ran into my arms. A police officer – one that was already there, not one of those I'd arrived with – told me the bus had been found here after one of the other passengers had walked three kilometers up the road from the industrial park (a notorious phone signal black spot) and raised the alarm. According to those on the bus, it had sped to the spot it was stopped at currently, and when it finally stopped and opened its doors those on board had gone to the nearby plant to try and raise the alarm. The plant had been shut down for a year and was empty, and when they assembled back at the bus, the doors were closed and the rental van was there.
Police had jammed the doors back open with a crowbar to investigate. Where the drivers seat had been, according to them, and where something entirely different had been, according to those on the bus and myself, was nothing at all. No seat, no steering wheel. No driver, no large black box. The police had put crime scene tape around the bus, and waited for instructions from their betters about what to do.
On the way home, the boy explained in his own words the same thing the police had relayed from the others on the bus. It had sped there, refusing to stop. The glass windows of the bus had appeared unbreakable, and only a feeble attempt was made in any event, because the bus was rarely below a break-neck speed that would make an escape out a window much worse than staying on board. Once he'd re-told the story, and went to start telling it again (such are young boys), my listening faded in and out as waves of relief gave way to waves of confusion, before giving way to more waves of relief.
In the weeks that followed, the police visited once. They asked the boy about the bus in detail, but the boy didn't have detail. Boys don't. They explained that the bus company had no previous, current, or future trial of autonomous vehicles planned. The license plate of the bus was invalid. The VIN and various serial numbers on the bus were in the correct format, but also invalid. The bus existed only in the experience of those that saw it, and not in any meaningful way on paper. The rental van found in the car park alongside the bus had been stolen from a Canberra rental office earlier in the year. There was nobody to arrest or charge from the event, and it was unclear what they'd even be charged with. The matter was marked “closed – unresolved.”
We still don't know what happened.
Increasingly, I feel we never will.