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Automakers to Congress: Don’t Make Us Keep AM Radio

In an era when companies are building driverless cars and 30-inch infotainment screens, the auto industry found itself in Congress on Tuesday fighting over technology that's a little more old school: AM radio.

(TNS) — In an era when companies are building driverless cars and 30-inch infotainment screens, the auto industry found itself in Congress on Tuesday fighting over technology that's a little more old school: AM radio.

Bipartisan lawmakers are considering requiring automakers to keep AM radio in all new vehicles as some companies — including Tesla Inc., Volkswagen AG, Volvo Cars and BMW AG — are eliminating the frequency from electric vehicles because battery motors interfere with signals.

During a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, the lobbying arm of the U.S. auto industry asked lawmakers not to do that, saying that plenty of technology is available to transmit safety messages, and that mandates could hamper future innovation.

That argument was met with united skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans: Lawmakers argued that AM radio is a crucial source for local news and public safety messages in remote areas.

"When hurricanes, tornadoes or other natural disasters strike, AM radio remains steadfast, providing vital information to those in affected areas when other communication channels fail," said subcommittee chair Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Doris Matsui, D-California, said "we know AM radio is more than just a lifeline during an emergency. For many, it represents an irreplaceable connection with their community."

The electrical components in electric vehicle batteries generate static that makes it harder to receive clear AM radio signals. Some automakers have aimed to minimize that interference, the committee said, while several automakers have opted to eliminate AM radio from new EVs.

AM radio frequencies generally have poorer sound quality and are more susceptible to interference than FM radio, but AM can be heard further away from a transmitter than FM.

On Tuesday, a representative for automakers said the industry takes "the safety of consumers and the public seriously" but that there is a federal system (the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS) that provides multiple alert options that will ensure people can get emergency information.

"The federal government and industry must work together to modernize IPAWS and continue to incorporate new technologies," said Scott Schmidt, vice president for safety policy at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. "Doing so will ensure we collectively provide the best, most capable and resilient technologies to the public, also strengthening public safety."

He added that there is declining listenership for AM radio: "We are technology agnostic in the sense that we are looking to deliver alerts to our customers as efficiently as possible, as broadly as possible, in the most efficient manner and in a manner that's not going to decline in the future."

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, said she's spoken with federal officials about IPAWS' abilities and believes "we are not adequately prepared to reach all Americans in the event of a disaster."

The president of a network of radio stations in Indiana and Ohio and an officer from the New Jersey State Police spoke in favor of keeping AM radio. They said AM is the most consistent, dependable platform in case of emergencies.

Multiple members raised concerns that automakers may start charging customers for access to AM and FM radio.

"The fact that AM is free is something that should cause all of us to sit up and take notice," said Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Michigan. "This is how people in rural areas like my district get their news. They connect with their religion, they raise money for local causes, they take part in diverse conversations that they might not otherwise have access to."

Schmidt said he can only speak to the industry's safety commitment, that automakers will ensure drivers have access to free public alerts and safety warnings.

The congressional uproar over AM radio began last month when Latta and 103 other members of Congress sent a letter to automakers that planned to eliminate AM radio, raising concerns about public access to emergency information, particularly in rural areas where internet and cell service is more sparse.

Two days later, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-New Jersey, introduced the "AM for Every Vehicle Act," which would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate that new vehicles come with AM radio at no additional cost. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Then Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley announced that the company would reverse its April decision to eliminate AM radio in new models beginning next year "after speaking with policy leaders about the importance of AM broadcast radio as a part of the emergency alert system." Latta thanked Ford for that reversal during the hearing Tuesday.

Energy and Commerce Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, asked why Ford was able to keep AM radio "with the flip of a switch" while other car companies can't. Schmidt said Ford just disabled the software that receives AM radio as it worked to remove the hardware, so it was able to quickly reverse its plan.

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