Why Is Tesla Killing AM Radio?

You just bought a Tesla.

Congratulations! You, my friend, are driving the wave of the future. While everyone else is burning dinosaur droppings, you are propelled ever onward by the magical energy of the sun and the wind. Gaia, the primal Mother Earth Goddess, loves you.

On the other hand, and I feel bad telling you this, you are also a murderer. One of my fondest childhood memories is carefully adjusting my radio’s spindly antenna and pulling in KMOX to listen to St. Louis Cardinal baseball. Now you want to kill that. Thanks a lot.

Your car is sleek. It’s powered by renewable energy. It drives itself down the road. The government gave you money to help you buy it. It accelerates like nobody’s business. It’s a Tesla, for heaven’s sake. And it’s killing AM radio. That’s right — your falcon-wing Model X does not have an AM radio. You can only find AM stations streamed via the TuneIn app.

From my back porch I can watch SpaceX rockets blasting off, and occasionally landing, at distant Cape Canaveral. SpaceX is a heck of a company, and Elon Musk is a heck of a guy. The omission of an actual AM receiver is probably not due to any personal malice toward technology.

I surmise three reasons for Tesla omitting AM radios: First, an AM radio might seem old-fashioned in a car of the future. Second, there are lots of other listening options (like the internet). Third, and most important, is noise. Try this sometime: Turn on an AM radio, then fire up your DeWalt power drill. Whoa!

Now, all cars generate electromagnetic interference, and precautions must be taken to mitigate its effects on the radio. Radio interference is a problem in some hybrids, and it’s worse in an all-electric car. The mitigation must be robust, and apparently Tesla has decided that clean AM reception is no longer worth the effort.

The omission of an actual AM receiver is probably not due to any personal malice toward technology. I surmise three reasons for Tesla omitting AM…

An AM radio is designed to respond to changes in amplitude in the received carrier waveform; those changes convey the audio signal. However, the radio struggles to differentiate between the audio signal and amplitude varying noise. In contrast, in FM radio, the carrier is frequency-modulated; the radio can reject amplitude-varying noise.

The Tesla Model X does not have an AM receiver, and neither does the BMW i3. The older Tesla Model S does have an AM radio. But here’s the thing: The future of vehicles is electric. As more and more cars and trucks go electric, I suspect that more companies will follow the lead of Tesla and BMW, and fewer vehicles will have AM radios. Most AM listening is done while driving. Ergo, in a few decades, AM broadcasting may disappear. “AM” stations will be AM in name only; they won’t modulate a carrier, and instead just excite some internet electrons.

Maybe listening to AM via the internet is better than actual radio. But to me, it’s not. For starters, the static in an AM broadcast is as integral to the listening experience as the surface noise on a vinyl record. I’ll miss Cardinal baseball accompanied by the mysterious static that informed me of nearby thunderstorms. European countries are already pulling the plug on AM broadcasting. Call it progress, call it collateral damage, call it whatever you want. For me, it’s another stake in the heart of my childhood memories.

Finally, let’s consider a tangentially related issue. Maybe you never listened to a ballgame and don’t care that AM broadcast radio might be doomed. But I bet you fondly remember listening to Dark Side of the Moon on FM radio. Then be advised that Norway, taking the lead in Europe, is shutting down all of its FM broadcast stations.

Just sayin’.

andreas's picture

Interesting reading! Surprisingly I don't own a Tesla, considering their enormous market share in Norway. Enough about cars, though. As someone from Norway I was very surprised to read that someone actually still listens to AM radio. I'm in my mid-thirties and I've never listened to AM radio myself. As far as I know AM radio was on its death bed during the late 1970's over here. This may have been because FM radio coverage in Norway has been generally good, at least in populated areas. On a side note I do remember my parents fond memories of Radio Luxembourg!

Like you pointed out, Norway is shutting down FM radio, and this is how I can relate to your article (although our opinions are polarized). All stations with national coverage have already lost their licenses. Local stations can broadcast until at least 2022. Many people are of course protesting this, mostly because all analog radios are rendered useless. With all the houses, cabins and cars people own over here that's quite a few radios.

Personally I have no problem with the death of FM radio, if replaced by something better. However, Norway has selected DAB (more precisely DAB+) as the replacement. With DAB+ all radio channels are compressed to 48-96 kbps. This is including extras, so a small chunk of the allotted bit-rate is used for transmitting metadata. It's also safe to assume that most radio stations already receive their music compressed from the suppliers, which means most music is compressed twice before it reaches the listener. You can imagine the result: Absolutely terrible sound, at least in my opinion. And we had just began to make progress in the fight against dynamic compression...

To me FM is better than DAB in almost every aspect that matters. It does fail in one aspect, though: frequency utilization. The frequency spectrum is a scarce resource, and neither AM nor FM radio is an effective utilization of it. So in the end we need to ask: Is nostalgia a reason in itself to keep old technologies alive? Static noise is after all a generally unwanted attribute of AM radio (and FM radio for that matter). I'm curious to see if Norwegians born during the DAB-era will think back and miss its really bad sound when it is eventually replaced.

Looking at the situation over here, my advice is to stop mourning the loss of AM and start lobbying for a better replacement to FM than DAB. It's only a matter of time before FM is replaced in the US as well. And lastly, to offer you some comfort: Even if you lose something you love, no one can take away your memories of it. Cliche, but true!

mxbishop's picture

Very interesting article. I still listen the AM and FM radio a lot. Mostly driving, but also some in the home when working in the garage, or in the morning while waking up. The cool thing about run-of-the-mill radio, that streaming services cannot replace, is that it is ubiquitous, and extremely inexpensive to consume. For the consumer, there are no subscription fees, the hardware is dirt cheap, and radio signals can be received no matter where you are. Also, I think it's important to value AM/FM as a fallback technology that can be used in emergency situations, when satellite radio may not be available. Consider the fact that almost every home in the United States has a portable radio of some kind. That's a lot of radios. Do we really want to make them all useless? It's a tremendous resource that bureaucrats should not make obsolete, just because digital and streaming is the cool new thing. A cavalier decision to kill broadcast radio would likely have a lot of unintended consequences - aside from making millions (if not billions) of perfectly fine radios into dust-gathering paperweights.

dommyluc's picture

AM radio sounds so much "warmer" and "more natural", and you get that "tactile feeling" from turning the knobs to find the stations and adjust the volume.

SalsabyJake's picture

My old U of I college buddy Ken missed one key point about eliminating AM radio in cars: Signal reception in remote places. AM wavelengths are long, and they have the characteristic of "bouncing" off the atmosphere such that they can carry for many miles even when no transmitter is close by. If we all listen via internet, that is great except where there is not cell coverage! So, I think the AM receiver would tend to be more useful to connect to the world in remote places (like dessert, open plains..). That's one good reason to keep them around. Further, many radios are implemented more in software these days, so the function is probably an insignificant cost. As the article implies however, the real cost may be in shielding the radio from internally generated RF signals in electric cars.. Cheers Ken,
Jake / Gordie