WASHINGTON (TND) — Congress held a hearing on Tuesday debating the merits of requiring AM radio be installed in all new vehicles, which comes as several automakers have made plans to phase it out in new vehicles.
The potential eradication of AM radio in automobiles has alarmed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle along with public safety leaders, who say the technology is more reliable in some parts of the country where FM signals and cellphone reception aren’t strong enough to support newer forms of emergency alerts.
AM radio has long been a place people can go across the country for updates and warnings about severe weather and other emergency scenarios, along with a wide range of music, entertainment and news coverage. But it is also facing stiff competition with the expansion of music streaming, podcasting and other platforms made available through the internet.
The House Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday where they continued to air safety concerns.
“Radio has been an integral part of our society for well over a century, connecting Americans to local news serving as the backbone to our nation’s emergency communications infrastructure,” said Rep. Bob Lotta, R-Ohio, the subcommittee’s chair. “Its unique frequency characteristics allow signals to travel far and wide overcoming geographical barriers and reaching both urban and remote areas, this makes AM radio an invaluable tool in times of crisis.”
Part of the shift away from AM radio is the industry’s shift to electric vehicles because the engines can cause more static with AM signals and distort the quality of the broadcast.
Eight of the leading automakers, including companies like BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla, are removing AM radio from their electric vehicles. Ford had plans to remove it from all vehicles, powered by gas or electricity, but reversed course after pressure from lawmakers and public safety leaders.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., had been pressuring Ford to reverse the decision for weeks and is part of a bipartisan coalition trying to require AM radio be installed in vehicles moving forward.
“AM radio is more than just an essential safety feature—it’s a free, accessible source for anyone to listen to music, news, sports, and entertainment. Innovation in the automotive industry should mean more features, not fewer, for consumers,” Markey said in a statement after Ford CEO Jim Farley announced the decision.
Part of the legislative push from Congress would prevent auto manufacturers from passing on the cost to buyers of electric vehicles.
“Life-saving value of AM radio clearly outweighs the incremental cost to improve AM reception in electric vehicles,” Lt. Col. Christopher DeMaise, Homeland Security branch commander for the New Jersey State Police, said during the hearing.
DeMaise also said that about a third of AM radio users are 65 and older, a group of people who are much less likely to use the internet and smartphones and could be at risk of losing out on emergency information.
Scott Schmidt, the vice president of safety policy for trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation, told lawmakers at the hearing that legislation mandating AM radios in cars is unnecessary.
“Access to emergency alerts under (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) is not limited to just one mode of communication, in this case, analog AM radio,” Schmidt said. “The system was designed to provide redundant alert mechanisms to ensure the public has access to multiple outlets to receive these critical alerts. The intent is not for the public to rely on a sole source to receive the alerts but to create a ‘net’ of sources in which the public can receive them.”
Lawmakers have already been pushing automakers to keep the technology in upcoming new vehicle releases, introducing legislation and trying to persuade the companies that it is a vital part of the safety alert system and how many people receive their news and entertainment.
A bipartisan bill, the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, has been introduced in both chambers requiring automakers to keep AM broadcast technology in their vehicles at no additional charge to consumers.
In addition to being a primary source for emergency information in parts of the country with poor cellphone service or that are without broadband internet, supporters of the legislation say it is an important medium for cultural and political content as well.
“AM radio is a critical bulwark for democracy, providing a platform for alternative viewpoints and the ability for elected officials to share our efforts with our constituents. Congress should act swiftly to pass this bill so Americans retain access to news, music, talk, and emergency alerts on the public airwaves,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a co-leader of the bill, said in a statement.