McDonald's is ending its drive-thru AI test

The Chicago-based fast-food giant is ending its partnership with IBM on automated order-taking without an expansion. But McDonald’s still believes AI drive-thrus are in its future.
McDonald's is ending its AI voice ordering test. | Photo by Jonathan Maze.

McDonald’s is ending its two-year-old test of drive-thru, automated order taking (AOT) that it has conducted with IBM and plans to remove the technology from the more than 100 restaurants that have been using it.

The Chicago-based fast-food giant is ending this test without any sort of expansion, according to an email sent to franchisees on Thursday. Restaurant Business has obtained a copy of that email.

But the company did not dismiss the prospect of drive-thru AI, suggesting that McDonald’s plans to find a new partner for its automated order taking efforts.

“While there have been successes to date, we feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly,” Mason Smoot, chief restaurant officer for McDonald’s USA, said in the system message. “After a thoughtful review, McDonald’s has decided to end our current partnership with IBM on AOT and the technology will be shut off in all restaurants currently testing it no later than July 26, 2024.”

Smoot said the company will continue to evaluate its plans to make “an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year.”

McDonald’s has been testing drive-thru voice AI since 2021. That test followed the company’s sale of its McD Tech Labs to IBM that year.  

In a statement to Restaurant Business, McDonald’s said the goal of the test was to determine if automated voice ordering could speed service and simplify operations.

The company emphasized, both in its statement and in the message to operators, that IBM remains a “trusted partner and we will still utilize many of their products across our global system.”

“As we move forward, our work with IBM has given us the confidence that a voice-ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurants’ future,” McDonald’s said. “We see tremendous opportunity in advancing our restaurant technology and will continue to evaluate long-term, scalable solutions that will help us make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year.”

In a statement, IBM said it is talking with other fast-food chains for the use of the technology.

“IBM developed automated order taker technologies with McDonald’s to support the emerging use of voice-activated AI in restaurant drive-thrus,” the company said in the statement. “This technology is proven to have some of the most comprehensive capabilities in the industry, fast and accurate in some of the most demanding conditions.

“While McDonald’s is reevaluating and refining its plans for AOT, we look forward to continuing to work with them on a variety of other projects.”

McDonald’s has taken a deliberative approach on drive-thru AI even as many other restaurant chains have jumped fully on board. Checkers and Rally’s, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., Krystal, Wendy’s, Dunkin and Taco Johns are either testing or have implemented the technology in its drive-thrus.

The goal for the companies is to automate the task and remove the need for an employee, which can either enable the restaurants to operate with fewer workers or redistribute those workers to other tasks.

But there have been questions about whether that technology is ready for prime time, amid concerns about order accuracy.

Still, McDonald’s comments on the future of voice-activated AI suggest that the company saw enough in its prospects to move forward, albeit with another vendor. “IBM has given us confidence that a voice ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurant’s future, and we want to sincerely thank IBM and the restaurant teams that have been part of this crucial test,” Smoot said in his message.

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