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Houston, we have a problem!

In a future filled with electric cars, AM radio may be left behind
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Michael Levenson   |   Published 16.01.23, 03:49 AM

For nearly 100 years, drivers have been listening to AM radio, an institution crackling with news, traffic, weather, sports and an eclectic variety of other programmes.

But that dashboard staple could be going the way of manual-crank windows and car ashtrays as EVs begin to grab more of the US marketplace.

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An increasing number of electric models have dropped AM radio in what broadcasters call a worrisome shift that could spell trouble for the stations and deprive drivers of a crucial source of news in emergencies.

Carmakers say EVs generate more electromagnetic interference than gas-powered cars, which can disrupt the reception of AM signals and cause static noise and a high-frequency hum.

“Rather than frustrate customers with inferior reception and noise, the decision was made to leave it off vehicles that feature eDrive technology,” BMW said.

Tesla, Audi, Porsche and Volvo have also removed AM radio from their EVs, as has Volkswagen from its electric SUV, ID.4. Ford said the 2023 F-150 Lightning, its popular electric pickup truck, would also drop AM radio.

Some experts say the reception problems are not insurmountable. Electromagnetic interference could be controlled with shielding cables, filters and careful placement of the electrical components, said Pooja Nair, a communications systems engineer at entertainment technology company Xperi Inc., which owns HD Radio technology.

“Most of our audience is in the morning drive and afternoon drive when people are going to work and coming from work — if we’re not there in their car, we’re nonexistent,” said Ron January, operations manager at WATV-AM, a station in Alabama, US.

About 47 million Americans listen to AM radio, representing about 20 per cent of the radio-listening public, according to Nielsen Co. Even though some AM stations have translators that send duplicate broadcasts over the FM airwaves, AM signals travel farther and reach more people. AM stations can also be less expensive than FM stations to operate, allowing some to offer programming geared toward specific religious, cultural or other communities.

Brian Winnekins, the owner of WRDN in Durand, Wisconsin, US, which has seven hours of farm-related programming every weekday on AM and FM, said he has been urging listeners to tell carmakers not to drop AM, noting that it can reach farmers in remote areas.

“If you can make a vehicle drive by itself,” Winnekins said, referring to the driver-assistance systems in Teslas and other vehicles, “you can make a decent radio receiver.”

In a letter to 20 car manufacturers, Sen. Edward Markey, Massachusetts, requested they keep AM radio in EVs. “Despite innovations such as the smartphone and social media, AM/FM broadcast radio remains the most dependable, cost-free, and accessible communication mechanism for public officials to communicate with the public during times of emergency,” Markey wrote. 

Many AM broadcasters say their stations’ news reports are the quickest way for drivers to find out about tornadoes, flash floods and other severe weather. Diane Newman, operations and brand manager at WWL in New Orleans, said that during Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, the station carried vital information about rescue and recovery efforts.

“There was no WiFi; there were no phone connections,” Newman said, adding, “You take away AM radios in cars and you take away a lifeline, a connection when the community needs you most.”

Carmakers noted that drivers can still stream AM radio on apps and that not all EVs have dropped it. Hyundai said it had no plans to phase out AM radio. And some observers say the threat from electric vehicles may be overblown.

“The challenge for AM’s survival may be more about broader demographics than autos,” said Michael Stamm, a cultural historian at Michigan State University, US. “Do younger people care about AM at all, in cars or otherwise?”

Not all young drivers have moved away from it.

“AM is where you get the information,” said Alex Cardenas-Acosta, 34, a Saab driver who works at an auto repair shop in Union, New Jersey, US. Like many who drive gas-powered cars, he was unaware that some EVs had dropped AM radio. Cardenas-Acosta said he listens to the New York Mets on the transmission. “If you want to find something serious, instead of all that crap they have on FM, you turn on AM,” he said.

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