[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca – AC]
My neighbourhood is lousy with electric vehicles: all flavours of Teslas, scattered Volts and Bolts, a selection of Hyundais and KIAs, a couple of Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) along with some Taycans, at two Polestars that I’ve seen, and at least one Lucid. They’re all loaded with so much fabulous spaceship tech that the mind boggles at what our driving experiences will be in the next 10 years.
However, one piece of tech is missing from many of them: a good old-fashioned AM radio, a feature that goes back almost a hundred years.
As far as people can tell, Kelley’s Motors in New South Wales, Australia, was the first to jam a new-fangled aftermarket radio into a car back in 1924. But it was the Galvin brothers and their new company, Motorola, that created the ancestor of all car infotainment units when they fitted a six vacuum-tube AM radio in a Ford Model A in June 1930. They overcame plenty of engineering problems, including where to put the giant high-voltage batteries (under the passenger seat), how to house the six vacuum tubes (in a big wooden case), placement of the antenna (on the roof), and most importantly, how to eliminate static caused by the electrical activity of the engine.
AM signals are easily disrupted by electrical activity. Overhead powerlines, lightning, external electric motors, and even the running of an automobile engine are enough to cause crashing static, buzzing, and fade-outs. The Galvins’ solution was to fit the spark plugs of their Model A with a “suppressor” so that the firing sequence of the cylinders no longer interfered with the radio. Tuning the engine down like this actually hurt performance, but at least motorists got to listen to programming that was relatively static-free.
What does all this have to do with today’s electric vehicles? Keep reading.