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Don't Touch That Dial: AM Car Radio Is Not Dead Yet

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AM Radio Is Not Dead YetDouglas Sacha - Getty Images
  • The AM For Every Vehicle Act is close to passing, making broadcast AM capability a requirement in new cars sold in the United States.

  • The Act has wide support in both Senate and Congress, on both sides of the aisle.

  • Proponents say passing the Act is about providing emergency services or free speech. But there is a cost to manufacturers.

Speaking to Chicago's WGN-AM radio station, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg made it clear that the Department of Transportation stands ready to enforce the AM For Every Vehicle Act if it passes Congress. The Act would make AM radio receiving capability a requirement in any new vehicle sold in the United States, with fines for manufacturers that don't. Currently, the bill has yet to pass Senate approval, but it has surprisingly broad support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“I think it's got some good bipartisan support,” said Secretary Buttigieg. "And the basic idea here is that AM radio is important. It's important not just for entertainment, but for information and for safety. We recognize that. I think most drivers recognize that. And so I'm glad to see that there's a lot of interest in different parts of the country. And from some people who don't always agree on everything, that this could be a good move.”

Several manufacturers, including Tesla, Volkswagen, and BMW, do not include broadcast AM capability in their full range of vehicles. In fact, BMW hasn't had AM radio in some of its EVs since the launch of the i3 a decade ago. If the Act is passed, which seems likely, automakers would be forced to make changes.

ford eseries 2021
2021 Ford E-series with AM/FM stereo.Ford Motor Company

In some cases, those changes will require more than merely an over-the-air update. Part of the reason AM has been deleted from modern passenger vehicles isn't just that the technology has been surpassed by FM, satellite radio, and streaming services. Especially in battery-electric vehicles, high-voltage electrical systems distort AM radio waves, essentially jamming them.

European carmakers in particular have little use for AM radio, as across the Atlantic most radio stations operate on the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) system. The likes of Volvo and Audi would probably be happy to see AM radio fade into obscurity, especially with more electric models in the pipeline.

Lawmakers from both the House and the Senate argue that AM radio is an essential way to get important information out in case of weather events or other disasters that might knock out a cellular network. While most AM stations also offer some kind of digital streaming via and app or internet browser, if internet and cellular systems are down, then radio is the only way to receive information. Further, there are any number of cellular dead zones across the U.S.

Apart from disasters, AM radio can be handy when the unexpected happens. In July 2022, one of Canada's largest cellular providers suffered a cross-country outage that left some 12 million people without coverage. But AM radio still provided news and traffic information, just like it was still the 1980s.

There is also a contingent of lawmakers who believe that eliminating AM radio capability is an attempt to cut down on the reach of talk radio. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas previously declared his opinion that preserving AM radio capability is akin to protecting free speech.

The arguments against forcing automakers to include broadcast AM radio capability is largely the cost that such would add to each vehicle. There are also those who see the Act as big government meddling. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky vetoed a push to approve the bill under unanimous consent in December of last year, saying, "Mandating that all cars have AM radio is antithetical to any notion of limited government."

If passed, the AM For Every Vehicle Act would add some cost to those vehicles currently sold without AM radio. Notably, Ford CEO Jim Farley announced last May that his company's decision to eliminate AM radio would be reversed. Secretary Buttigieg's comments, and the bipartisan backing for this bill, likely mean you haven't yet bought your last car with onboard AM radio.

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