While electric vehicles (EVs) are the wave of the future, they might be eliminating a beloved institution from the past — AM radio.
A brief history of radio
Radio comes in two “flavors”, AM, or amplitude modulation, and FM, or frequency modulation. Both transmit sound in the form of electromagnetic waves, with AM varying the amplitude of the wave while the frequency remains the same, and FM varying the frequency of the wave while the amplitude remains constant.
AM radio was first invented by Canadian-born American inventor Reginald Fessenden who, on Christmas Eve in 1906, transmitted the first radio broadcast from Brant Rock Station, Massachusetts to ships at sea. AM operates in the 535 to 1705 kHz range, and its waves can travel over larger distances than those of FM, making AM stations cheaper to operate. However, AM radio has poorer sound quality than that of FM, which was developed in the U.S. during the 1930s by Edwin Armstrong. FM’s waves are in the 88 to 108 MHz range.
AM radio hit its apex during the 1950s and 1960s, when teens sat glued to their radios, especially at night when the AM signals traveled the farthest. Popular DJs such as Wolfman Jack who broadcast from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico became stars. While AM radio has been declining in popularity for years, a 2018 study by Edison Research showed that AM radio is primarily listened to in cars during the morning and evening commutes when listeners tune in for traffic and weather updates, news, and talk radio.
The era of the EV
The first mass-produced electric vehicle, the EV1, was created in 1996 by General Motors. Today, there are over 20 electric car manufacturers. Electric cars are defined as having at least one electric motor which is powered by a rechargeable battery.
The electric drive train of battery-powered vehicles creates electromagnetic interference (EMI) with AM radio, causing static, crackling, distorted sounds, and buzzing. If the two signals are in direct opposition to one another, the AM signal can be canceled out entirely, and as more powerful EV motors are built, the interference with AM radio only increases.
It is for this reason that many electric car manufacturers have stopped including AM radio in their cars. BMW was the first auto manufacturer to eliminate AM radio starting with its 2014 i3 sedan. In a statement addressing AM radio in its vehicles, BMW said, “Rather than frustrate customers with inferior reception and noise, the decision was made to leave it off vehicles that feature eDrive technology.”
Tesla eliminated AM radio in 2018 with its Model S and Model X, while Porsche eliminated AM radio from the standard equipment included in its 2019 Taycan models. Audi eliminated AM radio from its e-Tron vehicles citing the availability of alternative digital radio via cellular or wi-fi. Volvo’s XC40 Recharge and C40 Recharge don’t come with AM radio, and Volkswagen has removed AM radio from its electric SUV, the ID.4. BMW’s EVs, the i3 and i8, don’t include AM receivers, however, BMW’s hybrid vehicles do. According to a recent article in The New York Times, Ford has announced that it is dropping AM radio from the 2023 model of its popular electric pickup truck the F-150 Lightning.
EVs still including AM radio are Ford’s Mustang Mach-E and GM’s Chevy Bolt EUV and Hummer EV. Mercedes includes AM/FM radios in some of its electric vehicles but not the EQS EV. While it was discontinued in the U.S. in 2020, Stellantis’s Fiat 500e included an AM radio. Stellantis was created in 2021 through a merger between Fiat Chrysler and the French PSA Group.
EV manufacturers could eliminate some AM radio interference by adding shielding to cables and wiring components, and by increasing the insulation around the electric motor, however, this would increase both the cost and the weight of the car. This wouldn’t be the first time engineers have sought to eliminate EMI interference from car radios. In the early days of gas-powered cars, engineers attempted to shield the AM radio from interference caused by the motor in the heater fan.
A safety issue
As the number of EVs and hybrid vehicles without AM radio has increased, the issue has caught the attention of U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts). On December 1, 2022, Markey sent a letter to 20 EV manufacturers including BMW, Ford GM, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Lucid, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Polestar, Rivian, Stellantis, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo, asking them to continue to include AM radios in their vehicles, and raising the issue of adding electromagnetic shielding.
Included in Markey’s letter was: “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 … ”
The letter gave car makers until December 22, 2022, to respond. Senator Markey is best known for extending the duration of Daylight Savings Time, first in 1985, then extending it further in 2005. He is currently sponsoring the “Sunshine Protection Act,” which would make Daylight Savings Time permanent.
AM stations are also protesting the elimination of AM receivers in EVs, with New Orleans station WWL claiming that during Hurricane Katrina there was no Wi-Fi or cellular reception and that their station was uniquely able to provide vital information about rescue efforts.
Alternatives to AM radio
European auto manufacturers have long been removing AM radio from their cars in favor of the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) format. DAB is capable of transmitting a larger number of stations at a higher quality and for a cheaper price. Today, AM radio stations primarily remain in Spain, the U.K., Ireland, and Greece.
Automakers are looking toward Internet streaming, satellite radio, and AM simulcasts on HD FM radio as alternatives to AM radio. A global radio aggregator and streaming service called TuneIn allows users to listen to more than 100,000 radio stations from around the world over their phone’s data connection. Carmakers offering TuneIn include Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar-Land Rover, Stellantis, Rivian, Lucid, and Tesla. You can listen to hundreds of radio stations, sports, news, talk, and music from around the world for free by using Radio Player Life through Google’s Chrome or Microsoft’s Edge browsers. Another free option is Radio.net which offers 60,000 radio stations from around the world.
Mercedes-Benz suggests multiple alternatives to AM radio, including satellite radio, Internet streaming, and AM simulcasts over HD radio. In a statement made to Autoweek, a spokesperson for BMW told owners of its i4, iX, and i7 EVs that: “We do offer FM, HD Radio, Sirius XM Satellite as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. If a customer wants to listen to an AM radio station, he or she can elect to do so via services such as TuneIn and connect/play them directly via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto through the car’s speaker system.”
It’s increasingly looking like AM radio could be going the way of car hand crank windows, ashtrays, and cassette players and become a relic of the past.