Ford Motor Co. is doing a 180 on AM radio.
This week, the giant automaker abandoned a controversial plan to stop offering AM radio receivers in its new cars, after intense opposition from broadcasters and Congress.
”After speaking with policy leaders about the importance of AM broadcast radio as a part of the emergency alert system, we’ve decided to include it on all 2024 Ford & Lincoln vehicles,” said a statement issued by Ford chief executive Jim Farley on Tuesday. “For any owners of Ford EVs (electric vehicles) without AM broadcast capability, we’ll offer a software update.”
It’s a major climbdown from early April, when Ford said that most of its 2024 models would be AM radio-free. In response, a bipartisan group of US senators last week proposed legislation to make AM radio a mandatory feature in cars. Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey co-sponsored the bill with Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
At least seven other carmakers — BMW, Mazda, Polestar, Rivian, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo — do not include AM radios in their electric vehicles. Ford didn’t include AM radio in its 2023 electric vehicles, the Mustang Mach-E and the F-150 Lightning. But the company went a step further and said that as of model year 2024, AM would no longer be offered in traditional internal-combustion vehicles as well.
Heath Hofmann, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, said AM radio is highly susceptible to interference caused by the motors and circuits of electric cars. Quieting the interference requires substantial changes to the car’s electronics. “It’s hard to fix it with a high degree of reliability without adding cost or reducing the energy efficiency of the vehicle,” Hofmann said.
But Ford and other carmakers got no sympathy from Clark Smidt, a radio industry consultant who worked at multiple Boston radio stations in the 1970s and 1980s, and today manages WATX, an AM station in Connecticut.
Smidt called the automakers’ retreat from AM radio “disgusting” and added, “If they can’t figure out how to keep AM in cars, they shouldn’t be screwing around with autonomous vehicles.”
Smidt suggested that the move against AM radio may be intended to boost the automakers’ profits. “The endgame could very well be that car dealers want to make more money from subscription radio,” he said.
For instance, AM radio has long been unavailable on Tesla cars. But Tesla owners can stream their favorite AM stations via the Internet, if they pay an extra $10 a month for Tesla’s premium connectivity package. Or they can pay about the same amount for SiriusXM satellite radio.
Dumping AM also threatens hundreds of low-power radio stations that cater to niche audiences, including religious communities and immigrants.
“The United States is a country of immigrants,” said Glauber Morare, managing director of Nossa Radio USA, which oversees Portuguese-language AM stations in Boston and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Most of these immigrant communities use AM radio for their socialization, integration of their culture, and learning about local American culture.”
He predicted that his listeners would not buy cars that lacked AM radio. “It is easier for consumers to buy cars from other brands than changing their daily driving habits,” Morare said.
Importantly, AM radio forms the backbone of the US Emergency Alert System, which is used to warn the public about natural disasters and other safety threats. Not only do AM stations broadcast these alerts; they’re also tasked with relaying safety data to FM stations.
“AM radio is instrumental in promptly disseminating vital information across all mediums during crises, ensuring that communities remain safe and well-informed,” said NAB president Curtis LeGeyt, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
According to a 2022 Nielsen survey, about 82 million US residents listen to AM radio at least once a month, and about half of them listen to news and talk programs, which are major sources of breaking news.
Still, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents the auto industry, scoffed at concerns that eliminating AM car radios could pose a threat to public safety. “Whether or not AM radio is physically installed in vehicles in the future has no bearing on the various methods of delivering emergency communications that alert the public,” the organization said in an e-mailed statement.
In addition, the group described Markey’s legislation as “simply a bill to prop up and give preference to a particular technology that’s now competing with other communications options.”
On Tuesday, Markey praised Ford’s change of heart, but said that legislation is still needed to force other carmakers to provide AM radio.
“Ford’s reversal reflects an overdue realization about the importance of AM radio, but too many automakers are still going the wrong direction,” Markey said.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.