June 05, 2023 Blog

What’s All This Static About AM Radio and Cars?

By John Bozzella

Say this for the auto industry, it doesn’t lack federal regulation.

Take the tailpipe on your vehicle – supervised by multiple federal agencies and regulations (not to mention California).

No doubt, there are government agencies with essential automotive missions, like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that oversees vehicle safety and rules to reduce or prevent roadway collisions and fatalities. True lifesaving work.

Now, some in Congress want to saddle NHTSA with a distinctly non-essential task: requiring AM radios in every new vehicle.

It’s tempting to take a cheap shot at misplaced government priorities and unnecessary mandates or make light of the whole thing with a jab about laws for hand-crank windows or cassette players.

Yes, legislation can be a blunt instrument, and the AM for Every Vehicle Act is a bipartisan solution searching for a problem. It’s just not necessary. (More on that below).

And though AM radio has been lapped by newer and superior technology (especially in vehicles) and millions have chosen FM, internet-based radio, streaming and satellite tech, analog AM is important to some.

My attempt to restore some sanity to this ‘debate’:

Nobody is banning AM radio. It’s true, some automakers have made a business decision to discontinue AM radio in certain vehicles.

Why would they do that?

First, the high-voltage electrical systems in electric vehicles can emit electromagnetic energy that might interfere with the AM radio frequency and make an already fuzzy AM station unlistenable.

Combine that with research indicating drivers barely listen to AM radio in vehicles and the finite real estate behind the dashboard to house newer technologies, a clearer, less dramatic picture starts to emerge.

Second, AM fans point out that 80 million people still listen every month. Maybe. But that’s the total audience. That many people aren’t listening in their cars. Netflix has about that many U.S. subscribers too. (You can get it in vehicles, incidentally… which is kind of the point).

While we’re talking numbers: there are 284 million light-duty vehicles on the roads today. Average age? More than 12 years. Average lifespan is actually several years longer than that, which means it will take two decades for the auto fleet to turnover – and AM radio to phase out.

Meanwhile, EVs represent just over one percent of all registered vehicles. So even if all those vehicles already discontinued AM radio, 99 percent of the U.S. fleet would still have it.

Will AM radio phase out over many years? Maybe. But it’ll surely be supplanted by something better. That’s always been the case with vehicle technology.

Finally, safety. There’s a school of thought that AM radio in vehicles equals public safety. Here’s the very specific scenario: you’re in your vehicle, during an emergency (it happens), and you’re already tuned to AM radio. You’ll receive a safety alert.

A more likely situation? You’re in your vehicle, during an emergency (it happens), and your phone lights up with an emergency alert. Or your FM station breaks in with an alert. Or your internet-based or satellite radio platform delivers an alert. More likely and certainly not going away.

FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System was built for scenario no. 2. IPAWS is what it sounds like, the country’s emergency alert system with technological redundancies that sends warnings across multiple platforms: AM radio (digital and analog), FM radio (digital and analog), satellite radio and cellular networks. Congress directed FEMA to modernize and futureproof the system back in 2015.

Whether or not AM radio is physically installed in vehicles in the future has no bearing on the multiple methods of delivering those emergency communications alerts to the public.

Mandating audio features in a vehicle isn’t necessary. Congress hasn’t ever gone this route, especially in a competitive environment with so many choices – many of them free.

But if you want government to prop up a particular technology that’s competing with other communications options and struggling with changing listenership… AM for Every Vehicle Act is for you.

John Bozzella is president and CEO of Alliance for Automotive Innovation.