Cars and AM radio go back a long way, but there’s a rough road ahead for the old travel buddies.
The same types of electric-powered motors that propel Teslas past 150 mph and the Chevy Bolt as far as 238 miles on a charge, are a total buzz kill for AM reception. Instead of sports, oldies or news, it’s more like all-static, all-the-time radio.
As auto makers race headlong into an electrified future, AM radios are getting kicked to the curb, joining cassette decks, eight-track players and ashtrays.
Daniel Rich is a fan of both San Francisco’s KNBR-AM 680 and his Chevy Bolt. That means his commute isn’t as easygoing as it used to be. “All my other cars over the years could receive that station just fine, despite the distance,” the 58-year-old eye surgeon said. “Not the Bolt.”
A General Motors Co. spokeswoman said GM was aware of the issue in the Bolt and has “taken steps,” but declined to say exactly what they are.
Daniel Rich is a fan of his Chevy Bolt. Photo: Diana Rich
The problem, experts said, is that electric-vehicle motors generate electromagnetic frequencies on the same wavelength as AM radio signals. That creates the buzzing and signal fading from electromagnetic interference.
“You get two signals that literally collide into each other and cancel each other out before the antenna even receives the signal,” said Brian McKay, head of engine innovation and technology at the North American operations of Continental AG .
As EV motors grow more powerful, so does AM static. “The root of the problem is getting worse,” Mr. McKay said.
Rather than field complaints about lousy reception, some auto makers, including BMW AG , have dropped AM radios from their electric vehicles. Honda Motor Co. no longer offers them on its hybrid electric Acura NSX sports car.
Tesla Inc. has phased out AM radio from all current production models, including its Model S, which used to offer it. Instead, the company offers an internet-based radio service as well as FM radio, optional HD radio and Bluetooth connectivity for streaming from smartphones.
Travis Hollman with his Tesla. Photo: Payton Boner
Travis Hollman, a Dallas-area business owner, said he ordered a fully loaded Tesla when AM radios were still offered. His 2018 Model S arrived in April without one, he said: “I was so mad I told them to take the car back.”
Mr. Hollman, 49, ended up keeping the car but misses tuning into local sports and conservative talk-radio stations. “They don’t want me listening to Rush Limbaugh, ” he joked.
Car AM radios have been as common as windshield wipers since the 1940s. On summer road trips, AM radio has been the north star for generations of drivers crossing the U.S., an idiosyncratic sampler of local Americana and a distraction from the fatigue of long hours on the open road.
Transistor radios blasted the sports, news and music of the 1960s on AM radio stations at home and on the streets, with hand-held versions nearly as ubiquitous as the smartphone is now.
Today’s AM radio stations, already struggling with a decadelong loss of advertising revenue, worry about losing any more of their drive-time audience.
“It’s a real challenge for the industry, and they’ve been trying to convince car manufacturers to include it” in all vehicles, said Mark Fratrik, a senior vice president and chief economist at BIA Advisory Services, a market research firm focused on broadcast media.
The digital dashboard of a Tesla Model X. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News
In a sign of the times, the L.A. Kings hockey team said in September that audio for most games would switch from AM radio to internet-only radio.
The biggest AM stations hold spots on internet radio services, which give drivers a way to hear favorite stations, even far from home. Smaller AM stations might not be able to afford the equipment needed to join the digital age.
BMW said it recognized the interference problem early, in its Mini E and BMW ActiveE models. AM radio never reached the i3 model, which made its debut in 2013.
The National Association of Broadcasters criticized BMW’s decision in a 2014 open letter. “AM Radio continues to serve an important role in America’s cultural landscape, and i3 drivers deserve access to this programming,” NAB President Gordon Smith wrote the head of BMW’s North American operations.
HD Radio, which uses digitally transmitted radio signals, is standard on U.S. models, a BMW spokesman said, and “many traditional AM stations in key markets are available on secondary and tertiary HD signals.”
There isn’t an easy way to eliminate the electromagnetic interference that drowns out AM signals without adding too much weight, experts said.
The BMW i3 car on display in Tokyo. Photo: Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Zuma Press
Toyota Motor Corp. is working on a solution, but “it’s a tough problem,” said Rich Sullivan, an electromagnetic compatibility expert and senior engineering manager at the auto maker’s U.S. research and development center.
Mr. Sullivan pointed out that the auto industry faced a similar challenge when gas-powered cars began offering AM radio and had to deal with noise from defrosters and heater fans.
Some companies that make entertainment systems for vehicles said AM radio’s time may have already passed.
“Even if we do resolve it, there’s a gravitation toward internet-based radio” that is displacing traditional radio, said Balaji Iyer, vice president for connected cars at Samsung unit Harman.
One web developer offers a smartphone app that, when used with a diagnostic port adapter, can activate the dormant AM radio reception in a BMW i3 EV.
The German auto maker warns that may void the warranty, but using the app is easy, said Art Isabell, 74, a 2014 BMW i3 owner. He retired from Apple as a software support engineer and lives in Honolulu.
Even though the AM reception in his electric vehicle is sketchy, Mr. Isabell said, he wants the option: “I rarely listen to AM radio, but I want to have it available as another potential source of information during emergency situations such as severe weather, tsunamis or North Korean missile attacks.”
Write to Chester Dawson at [email protected]