Why The U.S. Government Is Fighting To Keep The AM Radio In Your Car

Over the past couple of years, some of the biggest automobile brands, including BMW, Tesla, Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi, have dropped AM radio from their cars. The trend is particularly visible in electric cars, which are on the rise owing to a mix of lowered costs, improved charging infrastructure, greater availability, and government benefits. However, the shift hasn't been well-received by stakeholders in the broadcasting industry, agri-trade associations, members in the top policy-making halls, and of course, the folks who are reliant on the radio broadcasts for getting critical information.

"I would think that if Elon Musk has enough money to buy Twitter and send rockets to space, he can afford to include AM radio in his Tesla," Congressman Josh Gottheimer said in his campaign to preserve AM radio systems in cars, deeming them a vital system for relaying life-saving information. The biggest argument is that AM radio has proved to be a critical element in the U.S. emergency response system, having proved its merit during disasters such as "Superstorm Sandy, hurricanes in Louisiana, wildfires in California," notes the Congressman.

The pressure from broadcasting associations and the top echelons of policymaking hasn't gone unnoticed. Ford, for example, reversed course in May 2023 and announced that its new cars across all segments will be able to tune into AM radio moving forward. Some carmakers, on the other hand, point their fingers at the waning public reliance on AM radio waves for information and the technical challenges posed by radio kits, which could end up increasing the cost of electric cars and potentially affect their performance, as well. The lack of robust research into the conundrum further complicates the matter.

The challenges

In July 2023, FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel endorsed the Every Vehicle Act bill, which passed the Committee with support from Republican as well as Democrat members. In January 2024, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer proposed that cars lacking AM radio will have a dedicated sticker that says "Warning: No AM Radio. Vehicle Unsafe in Certain Emergencies." AM radio has 10s of millions of weekly listeners, including agricultural communities relying on AM stations for getting weather reports critical to their business. However, it's public safety that has taken precedence when it comes to vouching for AM radio in cars.

In a sternly written letter to automakers, Senator Ed Markey claimed that "broadcast AM radio is irreplaceable," while lambasting these brands for not giving the importance of AM radio kits in cars more attention. Over half a dozen former FEMA administrators also wrote to the U.S. Department of Transportation, arguing that if carmakers continue with their offloading, the "vital public safety system" that is AM radio will cease to work as intended.

Lawmakers, on the other hand, are not inclined to let it happen. Secretary Buttegeig, a strong proponent of the AM For Every Vehicle Act, hopes that the rule, if passed, would make it mandatory for all vehicles sold on U.S. soil to offer AM radio functionality. The bill is yet to get official approval in the Senate, but it boasts strong bipartisan support. As of February 2024, it has been sponsored by 206 Congress members, with nearly equivalent strong showing from both Republicans and Democrats in the bill's favor.