You’d think mobile ordering and payments would be the obvious answer to the question, “What’s the future of the drive-thru?” After all, placing a food order via your smartphone is a $38 billion industry, with everyone from pizza chains to theme parks offering their version of the technology.

As Deepak Ajmani, vice president of restaurant services for Wendy’s, noted in the QSR 2018 drive-thru study, “Imagine a fast-food world where you place your order on your phone, drive up to the pick-up window, and there it is. Made fresh, just as you ordered.”

Then he added that mobile ordering has “proven to be tricky to navigate operationally.”

The study, which was released Monday, digs into the problems with mobile ordering at the drive-thru in detail. Physical space is one of the biggest hurdles chains have to grapple with here. “The primary issue is that the easiest iteration includes a model like Dunkin’s, in which a dedicated lane is necessary to fulfill mobile orders,” the study notes. “And operators just don’t have the luxury with real estate today to incorporate two separate lanes.”

Dunkin’s store of the future does indeed include a dedicated drive-thru lane for customers placing orders via the Dunkin’ app, but lots of places — even other Dunkin’ locations — aren’t situated in areas where carving out extra space is easy or cost-effective.

Meanwhile, Taco Bell’s COO, Mike Grams, says the mobile-order drive-thru lanes he sees are typically empty, suggesting they may not be something customers even want or prioritize right now.

One reason for that could be how tricky timing can be with mobile orders in the drive-thru lane. Citing John Kelly, COO at Arby’s, the QSR study mentions that restaurants don’t always know when to start preparing a drive-thru order once it’s placed via mobile device: “How do you time an order to be ready right when the customer rolls up—not so early that the order gets cold, or so late that it backs up the rest of the lane?”

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for the future of the drive-thru. In fact, companies working with robots and AI are starting to come up with some promising solutions in terms of making the drive-thru faster and your order more accurate.

This week, AI company Apprente is demonstrating its voice-based technology aimed at customer service automation over at the FSTECH2018 event in Orlando, FL. Apprente makes interactive machines powered by a proprietary, neuroscience-based AI technology. The systems are designed to learn progressively, much the way children develop and maintain language skills over time. These “conversational agents,” as the company calls them, learn these skills through interaction with human beings, and through that could effectively automate the customer service process in many different scenarios.

“Research shows that more than half of all fast food revenue is generated by drive-thrus,” Apprente CEO Itamar Arel, Ph.D., said in a statement. “But fast food is not always fast and bottlenecks at ordering stations result in lost sales. Our conversational agents deliver humanlike interactions with technology-driven efficiencies, allowing restaurants to improve customer engagement.”

Then there’s Clinc, who’s looking to take its AI voice controls into the quick-service restaurant sector. As Chris Albrecht recently wrote, Clinc would use its tech to augment voice-control capabilities of drive-thru windows and make conversation feel more natural to customers ordering. As is the case with Apprente, this could have a huge impact on ease of ordering and therefore on speed and order accuracy.

And there are plenty of other options companies are testing to improve the drive-thru, from digital menu boards to having a baristas face appear on the order screen. Probably the single-most important takeaway from the QSR study is that brands need to stop “chasing the puck” when it comes to innovating the drive-thru lane. As hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s metaphor goes, the best players are those who don’t chase the puck, but instead are “those who anticipate where the puck is going and head there instead.”

Perhaps the current mood about mobile ordering in the drive-thru provides a good chance to pause and evaluate where the puck is actually headed in that realm.

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Jenn is a writer and editor for The Spoon who covers restaurant tech and food delivery, developments in agriculture and indoor farming, and startup accelerators and incubators. On the side, she moonlights as a ghostwriter for tech industry executives and spends a lot of time on the road exploring food developments in more remote parts of the country. Previously, she was managing editor of Gigaom’s market research department and was once a competitive pinball player. Jenn splits her time between NYC and Nashville, TN.

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