General Motors Turns to Ham Radio to Solve Antenna Problem

TAGS: arrl, radio

When General Motors -- the world’s second largest auto maker -- encountered a problem with the AM/FM antenna on its 2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible, it was at a loss as to what to do. Spy photographs showed a pre-production version of the car with a long whip-style antenna on its rear fender. After what GM called “an outcry among Camaro enthusiasts,” the company decided to rethink the antenna. But how?

On hardtop Camaros, the antenna is integrated into the rear windshield, but given the disappearing nature of this car’s roof, that wasn’t possible on the convertible. So GM turned to two antenna engineers -- Don Hibbard, W8DBH, and Gregg Kittinger -- who were tasked with doing what some thought was impossible: concealing the AM/FM antenna without sacrificing radio reception, while not putting it inside the Camaro’s windows.

Hibbard and Kittinger managed to find a way to bury the AM/FM antenna inside the svelte spoiler perched on the car’s rear deck lid. All that is visible is a shark fin antenna (used for satellite radio, OnStar and cellular signals), while the separate whip antenna -- built into the spoiler -- is used to receive AM and FM radio signals. He and Kittinger knew they had to find a way to preserve the vertical polarization of an AM/FM antenna, so they tried a few possibilities before coming up with the idea of placing the half-wavelength horizontal antenna in the spoiler. According to GM, this is a first.

A ham since 1977, Hibbard -- the holder of an Advanced class license -- is a self-described antenna nut, crediting his Amateur Radio background as a precursor for his love for antennas. He was first licensed when he attended Lansing Community College where he was studying electrical engineering. “One of my professors asked us in class if we would be interested in getting licensed,” he told the ARRL. “We already knew the technical stuff from our college courses, but we settled in to learn Morse code, the FCC regulations and everything else you needed to know to become a ham.”

After graduating, Hibbard went to work for General Motors in the electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) lab. A few years ago when a position in the antenna validation department opened, he jumped at the chance. “Through ham radio, I’ve always loved playing with antennas,” he said. “As hams, we are always building and experimenting. Sometimes at work, when I’m confronted with a problem, I say, ‘I did such-and-such on an antenna for a ham band. I wonder if it will work here.’ So my amateur experience with antennas has definitely come into play here at work.”

The spoiler AM/FM antenna is an active antenna module that does all its impedance matching and amplification before sending back to the receiver. But when asked about the possibility of an amateur antenna in the spoiler, Hibbard just chuckled. “This antenna just receives, it doesn’t transmit,” he told the ARRL. “We can get away with a receive-only antenna in the spoiler. I’m not so sure about a ham antenna.”

Hibbard said that the unorthodox placement of the antenna within the body of the vehicle created a number of technical challenges, such as balancing form by preserving the car’s styling and maintaining unimpeded audio reception. “Where other automakers have tried and failed, Chevy succeeded,” said Hibbard. “We hope to take what we’ve learned with the Camaro convertible, build on it and apply it to future vehicles.”

Hibbard said that with work and kids in college, he has not found as much time as he would like to be active once again on the air; he counts 15 meters as his favorite band and SSB his mode of choice. “I really enjoy contesting, ARRL Field Day and the ARRL Sweepstakes,” he said. “I also love experimenting and seeing what I can do. After all, I’m a ham.”

For more information on the spoiler antenna, check out this video of Hibbard and Kittinger. The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro goes on the market in February 2011.