Will Electric Cars Kill AM Radio?

tunein radio interface in a rivian
Will Electric Cars Kill AM Radio?TuneIn
  • The AM band in particular is subject to electromagnetic interference from electric motors, which generate frequencies comparable in wavelength to AM radio signals.

  • Many EVs have abandoned the radio band, while others—like the Ford F-150 Lightning—did include it but will soon cease to.

  • A global radio aggregator and streaming service called TuneIn offers a solution, by delivering feeds from some 100,000 stations over a vehicle’s 5G wireless network access.

Is broadcast radio an endangered species in the new generation of electric vehicles? The AM band in particular is subject to electrical interference, which is one reason the BMW i3 electric car declined to include it back in 2014. Tesla evidently gave up on terrestrial AM in the Model S circa 2018, and it’s not available on current Teslas. The Mercedes-Benz EQS EV doesn’t have regular broadcast AM, and both Volvo and Audi have produced EVs without AM. The interference problem could get worse as EVs carry larger electric motors.

For most of the last 100 years, “in-car entertainment” was provided (if your car had “R&H,” or radio and heater) by only one choice—the full panoply of AM broadcasting. In the 1960s, FM became an option, then the long march through add-on eight-track, cassette, CD, and phone-based music.

Lately, broadcast radio is seeing a small, single-digit dip in listenership, said Eric Rhoads, chairman of Streamline Publishing, which covers the industry through Radio Ink. Obviously, quite a lot of radio listening is done in the car today, but Rhoads said that hasn’t stopped auto companies from predicting that broadcast AM and FM would eventually disappear from the auto dashboard. Radio’s demise has been expected many times, but even today 86 percent of respondents in a Jacobs Media survey said they listened to radio (on any device) at least an hour per day.

Auto companies consider deep-sixing radio for the same reason they ditched the CD player—it costs money and takes up space and resources on the valuable digital dashboard.

And the interference problem is real. According to Consumer Guide, the electric motors in EVs “tend to generate electromagnetic interference with AM radio…Rapidly fluctuating voltage results in the high-level, low-frequency electromagnetic interference that reaches into the radio. Electromagnetic frequencies generated by EV motors happen to be comparable in wavelength to AM radio signals….Porsche, for one, has advised that this interference may result in static and crackling sounds. Other automakers point out such possible audio annoyances as distortion, buzzing and signal fading.”

Some automakers are putting AM in EVs, however, including Ford with the Mustang Mach-E, and several GM vehicles (Chevy Bolt EUV, Hummer EV).

ford f150 lightning
The Ford F-150 Lightning does have AM available, but it won’t for long.Ford

The Ford F-150 Lightning electric truck had AM, but it’s going away, says Emma Bergg, a Ford EV spokeswoman. “While we have had AM on our EVs, it is actually being removed for Lightning. Most AM stations are actually available through streaming services. ‘Amplitude Modulation’—the definition of AM in this case–is what we’re getting rid of in F-150 Lightning. The frequencies involved in AM radio tend to be directly affected by the electromagnetic noise in EV propulsion systems. It takes extra investment to make AM work in an EV, and quality can be compromised as well.”

In general, though, AM remains more in favor with American automakers—in part because it still has a listener base in the US. AM broadcasts are declining in Europe, and are being replaced by the DAB digital format.

One solution to the interference problem is accessing terrestrial radio through the 5G signal in most new cars, and that’s the niche occupied by TuneIn, a global radio aggregator and streaming service that delivers music, news, sports and podcasts to an audience of 75 million monthly users.

In an Autoweek interview, TuneIn CEO Rich Stern said that the service includes 100,000 radio stations, as well as such oddities as the audio from Jeopardy and other television feeds. That’s one way for TV sports junkies who aren’t paying for the privilege can get their game coverage. “Radio is still a vibrant medium,” Stern said. “The average listener tunes in 4.5 hours a day, and that blows Netflix out of the water.”

Radio has been limited by the range of its broadcast signals—to people “within the sound of my voice.” But that barrier is gone on Tunein’s service—you can listen to country music on a Nashville station, or hip-hop from Detroit. AM has also had sonic limitations (which is one reason music is seldom offered anymore), but taking it off the broadcast platform eliminates the static and fidelity problems.

TuneIn has a tiered approach similar to services like Spotify—free with ads, limited ads with a one-time fee, and no ads via a premium subscription (that also includes live MLB and NHL games). Automakers that have partnered with TuneIn include Jaguar-Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Stellantis, Rivian, Lucid, and Tesla. The last three make EVs exclusively, but every automaker is offering them now. Adding TuneIn does not necessarily mean regular broadcast reception is dropped.

lucid air
All Lucid Airs in North America have both AM and FM, but they also come with the TuneIn and other streaming service apps.Lucid Motors

According to Dave Buchko, Lucid’s spokesman, “We’re not using TuneIn instead of broadcast radio. All Lucid Airs in North America have both AM and FM. We have the TuneIn app, as well as IHeartRadio as additional streaming options. We also have Spotify and Tidal. We also recently announced a partnership with SiriusXM, which we will be adding through an over-the-air update soon. Since audio is such an integral part of the in-car experience, particularly on road trips, we’ll continue to explore ways to enhance that experience.”

Stern said TuneIn’s goal is “upleveling broadcast radio, making it global and as smart as satellite. At TuneIn, we believe in the long tail.” Sirius XM has certainly cut into AM/FM listenership, but not fatally. TuneIn’s interface is made for the larger tablet-style infotainment screens, and allows users to search by genre, by country, by language. The platform is ad-based, but Stern said that the full range of non-commercial radio is offered as a public service.

Do musical artists get paid by TuneIn? Yes, the same way they are paid via regular broadcast radio, via payments to music publishers. “The good news is that we’re relying on a radio model that has worked for a century,” Stern said.

There are other radio aggregators, and individual stations offer downloadable apps that let you listen anywhere. The free Radio Player Live, for Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge, gives access to hundreds of stations with music, sports, news and talk. Radio.net is another one. AM broadcasts are also available via Internet streaming and simulcasts on HD FM.

Stern said his father-in-law, Joel Stern, long counted on his local audience when he was on the air with Great American Songbook broadcasts at app-enabled WMOR in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “When he found out that he had listeners all over the world, it changed his whole perspective,” Stern said.

TuneIn’s revenue stream is via ads. In 2020, the company switched to Google and adopted its Ad Manager Audio for programmatic advertising.

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Would you miss AM radio if it wasn’t available in your car? Enough to pay for a subscription streaming service to get it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.