McDonald’s has started testing out drive-thrus that use artificial intelligence systems, rather than humans, to take orders. CNBC reported yesterday that the new automated drive-thrus are in use at 10 Chicago McDonald’s locations.
The new system is based on the voice platform built by Apprente, which McDonald’s acquired in 2019. According to McDonald’s, restaurants using the system are seeing an 85 percent order accuracy rate, with only about one-fifth of orders requiring human intervention.
AI-powered drive-thrus can reduce customer wait times and allow restaurants to shift its in-store workforce. A computer that understands natural language is always on and available to take orders. It could also be tied in with other automated systems that know a customer’s purchasing history to automatically make recommendations. With improved understanding accuracy, a restaurant would no longer need a dedicated person to take (or confirm) a drive-thru order, allowing more people to do more customer service or expedite orders.
McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski told Alliance Bernstein’s Strategic Decisions conference that a big issue ahead for the AI-powered drive-thru is scaling. CNBC reports Kempczinski as saying “Now there’s a big leap from going to 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the U.S., with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather — and on and on and on.”
The Apprente acquisition appears to be working out better than Dynamic Yield, which McDonald’s also acquired in 2019. Dynamic Yield generated automated menu recommendations based on factors like weather, and was supposed to be integrated into self-service kiosks and drive-thrus as well. However, this tech didn’t yield the results McDonald’s was looking for and in March of this year The Wall Street Journal reported McDonald’s was looking to sell part of Dynamic Yield.
While McDonald’s Apprente acquisition may have pre-dated the pandemic, last year certainly accelerated the need for enhanced drive-thru technology as dining rooms were forced to shut down. In a February 2021 survey, BlueDot reported that 91 percent of respondents said they had visited drive-thrus the previous month and that long wait times were a “dealbreaker.” Most major QSRs have been doubling down on their drive-thru capabilities to meet this demand, adding capacity and building restaurants around takeout rather than dine-in.
In addition to adding AI assistants, McDonald’s has previously said that it will add other features to its drive-thru such as express lanes for digital orders and conveyor belts to carry food out to customers.
Kempczinski also told the conference that McDonald’s is also exploring ways to automate parts of the kitchen such as the grill or fryer. However he said any such move in the back of the house is still a more than five years out as the technology is too expensive right now.