Japan’s first ‘regulatory sandboxes’ could open next spring

TOKYO — Japan is looking to create so-called regulatory sandboxes in three locales as soon as next spring to test technologies such as self-driving cars and long-range drones, piloting rules changes that could then go nationwide.

Labeling a city a regulatory sandbox would suspend many regulations there for a certain period, including rules against fully automated vehicles and drones that venture out of their operator’s sight. The government hopes this freedom will spark the development of new technologies and businesses that national lawmakers cannot anticipate, and let officials work out issues such as safety at the local level before innovations are adopted nationally.

The Cabinet Office is expected to select the city of Chiba located near Tokyo and Semboku in Akita Prefecture to the north. Officials are also searching for a third location in Tokyo, Osaka or Aichi prefectures. Chiba and Semboku have already played host to experiments in automated driving and long-range drones in their status as National Strategic Special Zones, where the national government can decide to relax certain regulations.

By the end of this year, the Cabinet Office will create entities for each sandbox to review trials after the fact on criteria such as safety. These organizations will involve engineers, legal experts and representatives of consumer groups, and will work with existing regulatory bodies to determine what rules should be suspended.

Necessary legal changes will be brought before the Diet in early 2018.
The government also looks to simplify and clarify pre-approval procedures for testing to help next-generation technologies move faster from theory to practice. To clear the way for a June experiment in Chiba using drones to deliver packages, plans had to be discussed with 12 groups, including a fisheries association and a port operator.

Tokyo said in the spring of 2017 that it intended to test fully automated vehicles on the roads around Haneda Airport. But political considerations may knock the capital out of the running to become a full-fledged regulatory sandbox: Gov. Yuriko Koike lambasted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government during her losing campaign for her national Party of Hope in the recent lower house election.

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