There is a lot of madcap tech on display at CES 2024, from wearable ovens to beer-dispensing robots, but the big players in the automotive industry tend to avoid the really whacky stuff. Unless, of course, you are Mercedes-Benz.
The German giant unveiled its MBUX Sound Drive technology at the show this year – a collaboration with tech-obsessed, multi-platinum pop icon Will.i.am that sees software remix your favorite songs as you drive.
But here's where it gets weird, because the looping, sweeping and soaring ambient 'performances' react to the way you drive, creating a "ground-breaking interactive music experience", according to Mercedes-Benz, and an innovative soundtrack to sonically-lackluster electric vehicles.
The idea came about when Will.i.am wanted to create a non-linear live music experience from his studio, but his love for cars (particularly Benzes, naturally) resulted in the two melding, creating a new way to listen to your favorite songs and soundtrack your drive.
I was invited to test the technology in a short drive around the Las Vegas Convention Center, where I was encouraged to fire up the Sound Drive app, which lives in the marque’s MBUX infotainment system, and select a song of my choosing.
There were only a handful of pre-loaded tracks on the day, so I opted for The Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling, which only seemed right, and carefully inched my way around the bustling crowds.
To make this work, Will.i.am and his team of developers essentially got their hands on the master track of these recordings and then set about carefully deconstructing them. So as I slowly worked my way around Las Vegas, the soundtrack merely started off as an ambient, swirling version of the basic Black Eyed Peas melody.
Turning the steering wheel brought in some kick drums and splashes of synths, while distant vocals echoed around the cabin. As I picked up speed, the track started coming to life, sensing the energy of the drive and mirroring it with blasts of vocals and drums that seamlessly built to a head-bopping crescendo.
But as soon as I slowed, the music faded back to an ambient backing track, yet this time it was somehow a completely different rendition of the same song.
In fact, as I was driving and talking to one of the developers behind the app, I forgot we were listening to the same song. It worked really well.
Spin the remix
We switched things up and started listening to Woman by Doja Cat and again, the experience was completely different. Sound Drive set about mashing up the track (that’s what the kids say, right?) and presenting an alternative version that matched the vibe of the drive.
If you're stuck in traffic, it offers a mellow backing track, but start hitting the S-bends and the tunes really come to life. In fact, you can stick the EV in Park and 'rev' the engine to bring in bold, thumping bass.
The accelerator is always mapped to bass, because Mercedes and the Sound Drive team believe that should be the "beating heart" of an EV’s sound track. Again, it’s a nice touch and, in my opinion, beats the synthetic robot noises many manufacturers inject into EVs in place of a raucous engine note.
I really didn’t want to like the system, writing it off as a gimmick before I tried it, but I finished the demo with a massive grin on my face.
MBUX Sound Drive is not something I’d use all the time, but it was a really cool way to experience a song in a completely different way and somehow, the tech manages to make the soundtrack unique, neatly avoiding being repetitive and annoying.
You could leave it on and forget about it. At least before you realize you’ve been listening to the Black Eyed Peas for way too long.
Wave your hands over-the-air
Mercedes-Benz says an over-the-air update will see Sound Drive added to any vehicle equipped with the latest generation of its MBUX infotainment system, even those with engines. Although it works particularly well in EVs that lack the rip-roaring growl of an AMG V8.
However, information was patchy on whether it would be free or not, with my co-pilot going so far as saying some premium models would likely get it for free, while others will have to pay.
The company plans to launch with hundreds of tracks, constantly adding to the library as new artists get on board. On that subject, Will.i.am was keen to point out that artists would get better royalties than they experience on popular streaming services.
What’s more, Sound Drive won’t just be limited to Mercedes-Benz vehicle in the future, as its creators want to turn it into an "open music platform" for artists from around the world to "create tracks, representing any music genre, in a new immersive audio format".
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Leon has been navigating a world where automotive and tech collide for almost 20 years, reporting on everything from in-car entertainment to robotised manufacturing plants. Currently, EVs are the focus of his attentions, but give it a few years and it will be electric vertical take-off and landing craft. Outside of work hours, he can be found tinkering with distinctly analogue motorcycles, because electric motors are no replacement for an old Honda inline four.