Ask Hackaday: Will Your 2030 Car Have AM Radio?

Ask Hackaday: Will Your 2030 Car Have AM Radio?

Car makers have been phasing out AM radios in their cars for quite some time. Let’s face it, there isn’t much on AM these days, and electric vehicles have been known to cause interference with AM radios. So why have them? For that matter, many aftermarket head units now don’t even have radios at all. They play digital media or stream Bluetooth from your phone. However, a U.S. Senator, Edward J. Markey, has started a letter-writing campaign to the major car makers urging them to retain the AM radio in their future vehicles.

So does that mean AM lives? Or will the car makers kill it off? The letter requests that the companies answer several questions, including if they plan to discontinue AM or FM radios in the near future and if they support digital broadcast radio.

AM Radio Kit – CC-BY-SA-2.0 by [Joe Haupt]

We must admit we miss having robust AM radio stations with general interest programming. It was exciting to be able to build simple radios and hear something you liked hearing. In addition, it was fun to tune in far away stations at night when propagation could often put distant cities and even countries into your radio receiver. But these days, the AM bands are mostly fringe broadcasters with some sort of political, religious, or non-English programming that doesn’t have the listener base to support an FM station. Before you dash off to the comments to provide your favorite counterexample, sure, there are pockets of more general broadcasting and a few FM translators. There are also some microbroadcasting stations serving limited areas. But the days of high-power, general-interest AM radio stations are pretty much gone.

Lies and Statistics

The letter seems to conflate AM and FM radio, saying things like “AM radio has long been an important source of information for consumers…” This is followed by, “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 90 percent of Americans… listened to AM or FM radio each week…” Our guess is a lion’s share of that 90% was on FM radio. We were surprised, however, to learn that a poll said that 33% of consumers said an AM radio is a “very important” feature in a vehicle. It also claims that FEMA has invested in emergency infrastructure for AM radio stations, making them critical to emergency management plans, although all the quotes from FEMA and other data seem to imply that FM radio is also important.

Why do automakers care? Cost is probably one factor. But, even more pressing is the interference issue. The Senator pointed out that digital audio is less susceptible to EV interference, but — of course — there are few digital radio receivers and stations on the AM radio band.

Our Take

Radio Station KHJ in 1927 – Public Domain

Even the inventor of the modern radio (including FM) thought that supporting both AM and FM together was a stopgap measure until FM took over. While we get that there might be a small percentage of people who rely on AM radio and have a new-ish car, we would be surprised if the number was that large. Then subtract the number of people who have an FM radio either in the car or separately that they could use if necessary. Then the number is probably vanishingly small.

What’s more, is those people are even less likely to have digital broadcast receivers. You could argue that digital stations also broadcast on analog. But remember, the FCC approved all-digital for AM back in 2020. After all, the expanded AM band was supposed to relocate hundreds of stations, but a lack of receivers means a lack of interest and so the actual number of stations in the expanded band is minuscule, especially if you count the ones that are broadcasting in both the expanded band and the traditional band simultaneously. The push for AM stereo died, too, and HD radio seems to be on life support.

AM signals indeed have a long history with civil defense. But it seems incredible that AM radio is vital to the national interest in the year 2022. If my experience is typical, people hardly ever use FM anymore, opting for satellite or online streaming via the mobile network. Of course, the AM radio lobby probably doesn’t agree. What do you think? Tell us in the comments.

Featured image: “2008_05_26_car_radios_04” by Doc Searls (!)

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