Guest Post: Digital Automotive – Radio Wars

The issue of AM radio in vehicles sold in the US has been debated for many years, but electric vehicles (EVs) bring this issue to a head, meaning that the most likely outcome is that AM radio becomes an option rather than standard in EVs.

  • Although the relevance of radio broadcasting has declined substantially in most parts of the world, it remains an important medium in the US by which consumers receive news, information and entertainment.
  • I have long thought the main reason for this is that US consumers spend more time in their cars daily than anywhere else and, in the vehicle, radio has long had the best user experience.
  • This is because when the user gets into the car, either the radio automatically starts or it can be accessed by one press of a big round button. There is no fiddling around with Bluetooth settings or cables or trying to find the right app.
  • Radio is also popular because in a country the size of the US, local programming is more important and the easiest way to deliver that historically has been through radio broadcasts.
  • AM radio broadcasts began 118 years ago in the US and many local radio stations and emergency broadcasts still use it.
  • According to Neilsen, 78 million Americans tune into it. This is down from 107 million in 2016 (roughly a decline of 3.5% annually), which is surprising in the era of smartphones, streaming services and increasingly digitized vehicles, meaning that there is a case to keep it in vehicles.
  • The problem is that AM radio has issues in EVs because the onboard electrics cause interference in the AM frequency, meaning that shielding is required to ensure good reception of AM radio stations.
  • According to the automotive industry, this would increase the cost of making EVs by $3.8 billion over seven years, explaining why all of the OEMs are keen on following Tesla’s lead and dropping support.
  • Tesla dropped support for AM several years ago but the inclusion of the TuneIn app in the head unit means that there is an alternative for anyone who wants to listen to AM radio.
  • The user experience will be a little more cumbersome but, crucially, it is still there for those who want it and I would expect that most of the OEMs will try to do something similar.
  • However, some are not happy with this compromise and are lobbying to get Congress to mandate the inclusion of an AM receiver in all vehicles, using emergency broadcasting as the reason.
  • This will only mean that prices of EVs rise even further, postponing the time when they can compete head-to-head with petrol vehicles on price.
  • Furthermore, given that almost everyone has a smartphone, there are alternatives for emergency broadcasting that did not exist when the emergency radio broadcasting system was first deployed.
  • Hence, the best (and most likely) outcome is that AM radio becomes an optional extra in EVs as the case for keeping it is not strong and there is more than one viable alternative for all of its uses.
  • Radio broadcast looks set to remain a significant part of how Americans consume content as its decline in the face of easily available alternatives with greater functionality and choice has failed to accelerate.

(This guest post was written by Richard Windsor, our Research Director at Large. This is a version of a blog that first appeared on Radio Free Mobile. All views expressed are Richard’s own.)

Richard is our research director at large and also founder, owner of research company, Radio Free Mobile. He has 16 years of experience working in sell side equity research. During his recent tenure at Nomura Securities, he focused on the equity coverage of the Global Technology sector. He had covered Global Telecom Equipment covering companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Lucent, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Filtronic, Alcatel-Lucent amongst others. Later, Richard began looking at Handset software and became an industry leader in the space. He shifted from direct stock coverage to covering technology on a global scale, taking on responsibility of the complete technology ecosystem. His firm Radio Free Mobile is a partner firm of Counterpoint Research and covers the digital mobile ecosystem, accessing and comparing all of the global ecosystems.

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