Last week at the Consumer Technology Association (CES) forum in Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz unveiled a collaborative project with the multi-hyphenate creator and entrepreneur will.i.am. Known to most as a Grammy award-winning musician, producer, and founding member of The Black Eyed Peas,, will.i.am is also an ideator and conceptualist, forming ideas and solutions to problems that involve technology for a solution.
w.i.ll.i.am Joins Mercedes-Benz as Ambassador
Recently, that played out at Mercedes-Benz with him as an ambassador. Atypical to most ambassadorships, however, which often embrace a subject’s image or likeness for marketing and campaign building, will.i.am approached his partnership by proposing a critique and a solution. During a simulation drive in a V8, going 20 miles per hour around a bend, he pointed out that the sound of the engine didn’t audibly depict its changes impacted by gravity. From there, will.i.am was encouraged by the car brand’s leadership team to propose how he would change that—and then he did.
Mercedes-Benz and w.i.ll.i.am Create MBUX Sound Drive
In response, over the past two years, will.i.am worked with the internal team at Mercedes-Benz to materialize his idea, naming it MBUX Sound Drive. Inside, high-tech software initiates music to react to car sensors—like accelerators, brakes, turning signals, and even rain hitting the driver’s windshield. Now, motion and melody create a symbiotic relationship to turn the driving experience into a musical journey, composing in real-time.
Getting Technical with Mercedes-Benz
From a technology standpoint, the music software within the car connects to hardware through its in-car signals, enabling the music to react to specific driving motions. Pre-determined parameters, for instance, work with acceleration, braking, and steering to manipulate the music that’s playing as the speed increases, the turn signals are activated, or a driver presses on the brake. When there’s inclement weather, windscreen rain sensors react with soothing rhythms, ensuring a stress-free ride is possible.
Later this year, MBUX Sound Drive will become available in Mercedes-AMG and Mercedes-Benz vehicles equipped with the second-generation MBUX system, and for existing car owners through an over-the-air Update Wizard update.
In celebration of the project, Whitewall spoke with will.i.am after his CES presentation about the conception of MBUX Sound Drive and the one thing Mercedes-Benz’s CEO said that confirmed his love of technology.
Inside the Studio with Mercedes-Benz
WHITEWALL: How did your role as an ambassador for Mercedes-Benz lead to this monumental music project?
WILL.I.AM: I started off at Mercedes as a traditional ambassador, working the way musicians and artists work with Mercedes. I was blessed to work with them in that capacity—and Linken Park was the ambassador before I became the ambassador. One thing about AMG and Mercedes is that when they have ambassadors, they like for them to do more than just show up and take photos and promote products. A lot of times, they bring them in for brainstorms. In that case, I was part of a brainstorm and pointed out my perspective on what I liked and something they could improve upon. And if you’re an ambassador in a brainstorm session, you want to make sure that you’re critique and council is thorough and you bring a solution to what you’re critiquing. A critique without a solution is a waste of everyone’s time. That’s salt and heat.
So, I pointed something out in a V8 simulator when we were going 20 miles per hour around a corner. In a traditional V8 car, you could feel and hear gravity pushing down on the engine that gives you these nuances. When you have a simulation, you don’t have those nuances. I pointed that out, asking, “How do you simulate gravity pushing down on the engine the way it does in analog life? I have a solution for how to do that.” And they were like, “Wow! Accurate point out. We’re curious to hear your solution.” I said, “If you give me your censors—coming from the accelerometer, your gyros, your brakes, steering wheel, GPS, and suspension—I can aim them to a sound generation engine, and when we turn a corner, we can oscillate the sound.” We can create that wobble, that oscillation, that nuance. They asked me how to do it and I told them I had a team, and that I just needed a car, all the schematics to execute the vision, and then I could execute it in three months. They said, “Can you have it to me in two months?” So, we finished it, went back to Stuttgart, and presented the solution and got the gig.
But I said, “This isn’t just a simulator to make the car go ‘Vroom.’ I think I can do something more than emulating a car. Let me do something where the car can compose.” They liked that vision even more. Once again, I had to present that to them, and they greenlit that project.
A lot of people might think, “Oh, they hired Will to be the face of that,” but this is the total opposite. This was an idea I envisioned and materialized, from a team that I formed. I got vetted by Mercedes engineers, and then we prototyped that. This is leaps and beyond what traditionally happens.
Bringing Music to Life with Mercedes-Benz
WW: Music enhances our life experience. How does this type of music, more tied to sensors, enhance the driving experience?
W: The sensors bring the music to life. When an artist goes in to record a song, that song exists, but it’s never going to change unless you’re in a club and a DJ is manipulating it or you see them perform it live. Now, music is alive in a brand new way. It’s expansive and multi-dimensional in sound drive. Now, your favorite song—a brand new one or a classic from the past—it is dimensionalized, and never in the same state. So you’re not getting bored in the drive and you’re not getting bored of the song. Now, every time it’s different and altered.
WW: As you’ve described, Mercedes-Benz has given you a lot of creative freedom and support to make this project come to life. What does partnering with a brand like this mean to you?
W: I’ll tell you one thing Ola (Källenius), the CEO, told me that changed how I see myself. He said, “Will, I thought you were just a musician that loved tech. And after working with you, and seeing how you work, I realized you’re a technologist that happens to be a musician.” For someone at the highest level of Mercedes, for the CEO to see you that way, that reconfirmed and authenticated what I’m passionate about.
Sometimes, a mentor shows up in ways you never expected them to show up. In that case, that counsel, that perspective, this view of me—that was a mentor to reinforce that whatever I’m doing is legit. It supercharges me even more, and can show some kid out there from an underdeveloped community that there’s no such thing as impossible now. It’s like what Pharrell (Williams) is doing at Louis Vuitton right now. There’s no such thing as impossible! We’re two people breaking down buried and paving paths for generations that’s to come next, just like people who did that for us—like Run-DMC and their partnerships and working with big brands in the ‘80s. This is another path for us. And wow, I can’t believe it’s with Mercedes.
w.i.ll.i.am in 2024
WW: What else do you have plans to work on in 2024?
W: The only thing I’m working on outside of Sound Drive, is FYI—my creative enterprise messenger that’s a singular interface for management, team flow, and teamwork.
WW: That’s AI-powered, right?
W: Yes, AI-powered! Privacy with elliptical-curve cryptography, and generative AI at the core of the platform. Those are my two focuses—FYI and Sound Drive. And anything I do in music will be through Sound Drive and FYI. That’s a lot. That’s my musk.