NTT DoCoMo is at it again, this time dabbling in the fine art of bicycle sharing. The Japanese mobile carrier's own flavor is currently undergoing beta testing in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, and uses a familiar kiosk system to collect and dish out bikes. Residents (and tourists with Japanese cell phone numbers) can rent bikes 30 minutes at a time for 105 Yen (about $1.40) for the first half hour, then 210 Yen for each subsequent period. You also rent bikes by the month for 1,050 Yen (about $14). Overall, this implementation doesn't appear to be different than what's already been installed in some US and European cities, but it's apparently a first for the Tokyo area.
The next iteration is far more exciting, however. Rather than visiting a kiosk to rent a bike, you'll be able to use a smartphone app to locate some available wheels, with position information broadcast by a built-in GPS. Once you find a bike you want to rent, the system will send an unlock code to your handset, which you'll enter into a handlebar-mounted PIN pad. The current prototype is an e-bike, though future models may not include pedal assist, since swapping out batteries could be a logistical nightmare for maintenance crews. The bike can be left anywhere (within a predetermined area, we presume), and is immobilized using a rear tire lock. Locking the back tire to prevent theft (if a lock is used at all) is a trick that definitely only works in Japan -- you can't leave a bike unattended for five minutes in New York City without it disappearing, even with a wheel lock.
Conceptually, the system appears to be very similar to the Social Bicycles model that we wrote about earlier this summer as part of our Insert Coin series, though that US-based prototype includes a u-style lock, for securing the bike to a post or tree. We'd love to see either concept hit production soon, and if the Yokohama trial goes off without a hitch, then a standalone counterpart will definitely have a better chance of becoming a reality. So go rent some bikes! And jump past the break for a look at both systems at CEATEC Japan.