AM Radio Controversy – Keep It or Kill It?

August 20th, 2023 by

When was the last time you purposely listened to the AM radio? Chances are, it hasn’t been recently, as the wave of digital radio capabilities has even largely replaced FM bandwidth over the past few years. Another nail in the analog AM coffin, besides its lack of popularity, is the fact that it often interferes with electric vehicles’ ability to operate properly which is turning out to be a major manufacturing snafu. The issue itself is not detrimental to EVs, but AM frequency is causing an annoyance. And though the glaring solution of simply getting rid of AM radio seems obvious, lawmakers are fighting tooth and nail to mandate that all makes and models of vehicles–including EVs–retain AM radio capability. 

AM Radio Debate

 You may be thinking, “Why on earth would we keep AM radio, especially if it is interfering with our electric vehicles?” Seriously, who even uses AM radio these days? Consider this statement from Democratic Senator Ed Markey as he explains the controversy over the “AM Radio for Every Vehicles Act of 2023:

“Broadcast AM radio is an essential part of our emergency alert infrastructure, but the responses to my letter show that far too many automakers are ignoring the critical safety benefits of AM radio. Although many automakers suggested that other communication tools— such as internet radio—could replace broadcast AM radio, in an emergency, drivers might not have access to the internet and could miss critical safety information.” 

Clearly, the controversy over AM radio is not regarding its popularity but rather its usefulness in an emergency situation. With that said, when was the last time any of us needed AM radio due to an emergency? What would an emergency needing such an antiquated method of communication like this look like? 

AM/FM Transmissions 

Am broadcasting was the first method of transmitting audio radio through the use of amplitude modulation. AM wavelengths can be short, medium, or long and it is, compared to digital transmissions, less expensive and more effective (can be pushed over longer distances) to use AM frequency. The downside to AM broadcasting is that it is more susceptible to interference than other transmission methods, and the audio quality of AM radio is at a lower fidelity than the others: FM, digital, satellite, HD, Internet, etc. 

So, why not get rid of AM and keep FM? Since amplitude modulation is so easy to produce and can be pushed for longer distances, it is a near-perfect method for broadcasting so that anyone with radio capability from within a large area can be reached. (AM broadcasts can typically reach as far as 100 miles.) Immediately, a scene from an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster unfolds: a long stretch of highway littered with cars quickly abandoned and doors left hanging open; maybe a few zombies walking around looking for fresh flesh. Then, from a distance, a voice can be heard coming from one of the empty cars, giving information and directions for survival. Where is this Godsend coming from?! Ah, yes, the only mode of communication still standing–the AM radio. 

This is Hollywood of course, and we have yet to have ourselves a zombie apocalypse; however, replace zombie apocalypse with any sort of natural disaster and this movie scene becomes very real. Whether it’s wildfires or hurricanes or earthquakes, large disasters like these can easily dismantle commonly used methods of communication, leaving us to rely on more traditional, basic ways of getting information to people, such as using amplitude modulation. This is why there is such a fight to keep AM radio.

The Trouble With EVs

It’s no wonder why electric vehicles are becoming so popular. They are powered only by electricity and can drive for over 200 miles on a single charge. With the absence of gas and oil, these driving machines provide a completely new driving experience. There is no loud engine. No dirty oil changes, and no mysterious puddles to be found underneath the engine. Driving an EV definitely has its perks. Here are a few pros and cons:

Pros

● The cost of electricity is less expensive than gas—especially these days!

● The instant power provides quick response time on all levels of the car’s capabilities.

● Can be charged from home or anywhere else where the car can be plugged in.

● Since they have fewer parts than a non EV, the cost to maintain them is significantly less.

● Zero emissions are produced while driving.

● Ultra smooth and quiet ride. 

Cons

● Can cost as much as $10,000 more than a non EV.

● Long trips have to be planned around charging stations.

● Can be difficult to charge for those who live in compact, public areas without off-street or garage parking.

● Charging the vehicle can take up to an hour.

● Extreme temperatures reduce driving range. 

● It’s unclear the cost of a new battery for EVs (rarely happens, but is possible). 

There is one more con against electric vehicles. Since EVs use the same wavelength as AM radio, a loud hum and/or buzzing sound occurs while driving. Here is what Ashruf El-Dinary, a senior vice president of digital platforms at Xperi had to say about this controversy:

“The current system is the vehicle, a lot of them are pulse-width modulated, so it has some high current going through which creates inductance, which can transfer back into the antenna system.” This transfer is what causes the unwanted hum/whine/buzzing noise and is the reason automakers want to get rid of AM radio completely. 

So what should be done? Do we throw caution to the wind and kill AM (despite a possible, future zombie apocalypse)? Or do we try and ignore the whining hum sound? (Maybe we will learn to live with it?) The truth is, there is simply not enough information out there for an educated decision to be made. Surely there can be a way to keep AM and rid EVs of the interference, but unfortunately, we are not there yet. Until then, the production of EVs will most likely be stymied. 

Not An Easy Fix

In order to figure out how to get AM and EVs to live in harmony (literally), it will take some time and money; two things electric car makers would rather be spending on making more EVs. But, it does not look like AM will be leaving without a fight, and it will be the more forward-thinking car companies that come up with a solution that allows EVs to operate and incorporate AM without disturbance. 

Until that time, stay tuned in to the legislation surrounding AM radio in EVs, and keep watch on which direction car companies are deciding to go: are they ignoring the issue and continuing to create their EVs, or are they looking for a way to resolve the controversy?