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Opinion

Opinion: is will.i.am’s Sound Drive the best thing to happen to in-car entertainment since CarPlay?

We’ve been for a ride in a Mercedes that remixes songs as you drive. The future of the road trip playlist?

Published: 11 Jan 2024

The first thing you need to understand about Sound Drive is that it’s really difficult to understand.

Mercedes and will.i.am, the creative force behind it, liken it to a car behaving as an orchestra and the driver its conductor. By reacting to readings from sensors in the pedals, steering, and suspension, Sound Drive remixes or even composes songs from pre-recorded samples as you travel. 

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But unlike the Hans Zimmer-generated soundtrack in, say, a BMW i7, we’re not talking about the crescendo of one note, rising like, well, an engine note. Sound Drive totally reimagines whole existing songs. Once the samples to work with have been generated, there are effectively infinite combinations of how you can improvise with it, depending on how you’re driving.

Amusingly Mercedes thinks it counts as a safety feature. Though the bass drop and vocal punch when you dump the throttle is addictive, the system is linked to GPS and notes the current speed limit. If you’re in a 30mph zone, the song will only ‘reward’ you for accelerating up to 30mph. If you start speeding, the song stays at the same tempo, instead of ramping up further as it would on a 70mph motorway.

I wasn’t expecting to rate Sound Drive. I presumed it’d be another one of those gimmicks like ambient lighting which glows red when you turn the heater up then goes blue when you wind it down. Or gesture control. Or voice assistants. Something we’re told is the future, but is a novelty at best or annoying at worst. Easily forgotten about in a sub-menu.

But it just might have tapped into something quite clever – a positive mutation of main character syndrome.

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When you listen to music, life feels cinematic. Whether you’re driving, working out, sat on the bus or cooking in your kitchen, the right song at the right time feels like your life is being scored with a soundtrack in real time. Nothing more frustrating than a favourite track playing just as you reach traffic, though.

When the music is being edited and manipulated by your speed and driving behaviour though, the ‘good bit’ of the song is always ready to deploy. Just as a high-tempo song will be used to signal a climactic car chase in a film, when Sound Drive is activated you can’t escape the notion your life is being soundtracked in real time. In the neon-lit streets of Las Vegas, it produced flashbacks to the title sequence of Drive.

And that makes a mundane drive feel a little more stimulating. It’s also more authentic than an EV playing a fake engine note to fill the awkward silence.

I chucked a video of Sound Drive on my Instagram and copped lots of replies saying it was a complete waste of time, a gimmick, a distraction. I think one of its chief disadvantages is that it absolutely has to be experienced live to be appreciated – it’s impossible to explain, difficult to describe, and easy to deride. And it needs a massive ecosystem of compatible songs as quickly as possible. People are used to having the entire musical back catalogue of humanity on demand these days.

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What’s clever is that by using sensors that are already in modern cars, Sound Drive should be an easy over-the-air install into most modern luxury cars. Which tend to have pretty awesome sound systems. I found getting back into a car with a ‘passive’ pre-recorded playlist a bit sterile after experiencing Sound Drive. It felt old fashioned, somehow.

There’s little that’s as subjective as taste in music. And yet enjoying music while driving is something that millions do every day. Now they can have some input with it, an electric car might just become fun to listen to. And if it buys an EQE some relevance with younger customers, it’ll be music to Mercedes’ ears too.

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