When glafit first introduced their new E-bikes to Japan in 2017, many were impressed. E-bikes offered a brand new experience on Japanese roads, providing a ride on a lightweight two-wheeler that could switch between motor mode, pedal mode, and hybrid mode. Add to this an easily collapsible frame that allows for fold-up and storage.

Despite the revolutionary concept that the E-bike introduced, its implementation came with its own set of challenges. One such challenge came in the form of traffic regulations. Bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles are all covered under law, but it was unclear as to which laws the E-bike falls under.

Regulatory review threatened to slow the passage of new rules that would allow the E-bike onto bike lanes or other off-highway paths, crucial to its use when riders want to switch to pedaling in crowded cities or rural settings.

This is where Japan’s new “sandbox” programme comes in. Under said programme, glafit was able to enter a demonstration agreement with Wakayama City so that E-bikes can operate in multiple settings while the city and company collect use and safety data that can be used to create new regulations.

Wakayama City Hall official Kobayashi Kenta, Section Chief of the Industrial Policy Division, said the experiment will both support a hometown startup, as glafit is based in Wakayama, and encourage the use of hybrids, which could go a long way in increasing environmental sustainability.

“We decided by supporting glafit, we have the possibility also of solving social issues,” he said. “We have a shortage of transportation in our rural areas, and we need to diversify affordable transportation methods for elders. Inside the city, we think pushing forward with the usage of these bikes will also relieve traffic congestion and reduce the environmental footprint of vehicles.”

The government of Japan introduced the sandbox framework in 2018 as one mechanism for regulatory reform to support the development of innovative technologies and business models in Japan. The framework does not limit the area of regulations, but currently covers those in financial services, the healthcare industry, mobility and transportation.

Any company, even those that are based abroad, can apply to conduct demonstrations and experimentations under this new framework and test the possibilities of innovative tech such as AI, IoT, or blockchain. The projects are monitored, so the government can review the social and economic viability of the technology, how the technology fits in with current regulations, and what changes need to be made.

The 129 companies that currently operate under the sandbox framework are exploring a wide range of projects. The programme has opened up new avenues for experimentation and innovation and is truly a boon for ambitious entrepreneurs.

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