One thing that’s fun about this software-focused transformation of the car industry is that automakers are throwing a lot of different things at the wall to see what sticks. Think Toyota’s simulated manual gearbox for electric vehicles, or Hyundai’s forthcoming sports team-themed “skins” for your infotainment system. Maybe some of these ideas will be discarded; maybe some will become an industry-leading hit. Who knows, right?
That helps explain why Mercedes is turning to musician will.i.am, whom it has worked with on several car-related projects now, for a radical reinvention of the in-car audio experience called “MBUX Sound Drive.” Unveiled at CES today, this feature means that in short, Mercedes’ electric cars will soon come with special, looping audio tracks that react in unique ways to how the car is driven.
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The result is that you get to play DJ for a certain song, mixing it and adjusting its various layers with the steering wheel and pedals as you cruise through traffic or hit your favorite back road.
Sounds a bit confusing, right? I didn’t get it either, until I went for a spin with another auto journalist around the block in Las Vegas. And while I don’t think I’m about to get offered a combination driver-and-DJ gig with the Black Eyed Peas, I’m weirdly quite into this, and want to try it some more.
A New Way To ‘Make Music’
At the Mercedes press conference at CES, will.i.am. (real name William James Adams Jr., in case you didn’t know) said he started as a brand ambassador for Mercedes back in 2020. It felt like a “perfect marriage,” he said; Mercedes is his favorite car company, he drives a G-Class and a GT 63 AMG, and he was eager to actually share his ideas with them and not just serve as a celebrity spokesman. Eventually, they took him up on one of them.
“How about an electric car that does more than just simulate a V8 engine?” the seven-time Grammy Award winner said. “What if I took the sensors from the accelerometer, from the gyros, from the acceleration from the brake, steering wheel, the suspension and GPS, and all of those were aimed at the audio generation engine?”
The idea, he said, would mean “the driver was composing every single route.” Artists like him would have a new avenue to create music—one that’s tailored to different driving situations and may even result in something entirely different if another route is taken.
“So now that you we know what’s possible, instead of just composing for the top 40 and aiming hopefully one day you have the hit. You are now composing for routes,” will.i.am said. “The autobahn is now an auto-band.” Speed, braking and turning the wheel all tweak how the music sounds, what layers are playing on top of a bassline—all of which he says is ideal for Mercedes’ EQ electric cars because their cabins are inherently quiet.
Moreover, will.i.am said, there’s nothing stopping Mercedes from adding “Easter Eggs” to songs based on locations; special things that happen when a driver passes a certain area. A lot could be done here, and I got the sense they’re only scratching the surface of any of it.
“I’d like to put on memories that unlock when a driver passes this location,” he said. “It opens up a whole new way to design sound experiences, as opposed to just playing for two minutes.”
How It Feels On The Road
I’ll readily admit this can be hard to understand. I didn’t get it, either, so I had to try it.
After hearing what will.i.am had to say, I stepped into an EQE AMG SUV parked outside. The car was pre-loaded with 16 different tracks—most of them from or curated by the Black Eyed Peas frontman, of course—and after I hit the play button, we went for a spin. I started out riding shotgun.
An EDM song called “Imagine” was up first. No, not the John Lennon ballad; this one had more of a Daft Punk Tron soundtrack vibe. The bassline started out low and slow, and as we built up speed and left the parking lot, it started building up, louder and with more layers of instruments being added. By the time I was at normal driving speeds, it was in full effect. When we took a right and slowed down, it started fading out more and more.
The song would play on an endless loop, going away only when we turned it off. But in theory, the song would never get “old,” because it was always different depending on how the EQE was driven—faster, louder, more amped up when the car was at speed, or low and slow when we came to a stop. We then flipped to Doja Cat’s “Woman,” something that’s utterly inescapable on the radio these days. But this version of it felt like an enhanced club mix, almost, because it was always different depending on the driving conditions at play.
I hopped in the driver’s seat and flipped to another option: “Scream & Shout.” (My wife is a Britney Spears superfan.) Same effect again: just the bassline when the car was slow or stopped, almost like an intro to the song, before going into the full “Oh, we oh, we oh, we oh” as I got our speed up.
So how was it? Honestly, a lot of fun. And it’s been a long time since I felt something this sincerely different in a car. The last time, honestly, might have been the electric manual gearbox in that Toyota. Sometimes gimmicks actually work, I guess.
How It Works
I sort of rolled my eyes when I first read about MBUX Sound Drive. But after hearing will.i.am’s sincere enthusiasm for this idea—as a car guy and as a professional musician—I was intrigued. It’s hard to scoff at that kind of sincerity. And after driving it, I think he’s onto something.
What’s interesting here is what Mercedes plans to do with it. First, it’s rolling out globally from mid-2024 and will be available on Mercedes and AMG vehicles equipped with the current second-generation MBUX system via an over-the-air update. A Mercedes rep said some cars, possibly the AMG models, will get the upgrade for free, while other owners will have to pay for it. No other pricing or release date details were immediately available.
Moreover, Mercedes said the goal isn’t to just limit this idea to its own cars; it will eventually become an open “platform” for music creation. “As a result, artists from around the world will be able to create tracks, representing any music genre, in a new immersive audio format using MBUX Sound Drive studio software,” the automaker said in a news release.
Sounds like fun, right? From now on, music won’t just be something you listen to in your car, but have a hand in creating yourself. And I already have a few great driving songs I hope will make it onto this platform.
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