McDonald’s Ends Its AI Drive-Through Assistant Experiment

McDonald’s has ended its experiment with using artificial intelligence (AI) voice assistants to replace human servers in some of its drive-through (drive-thru in US speak) restaurants in the United States.

The Associated Press reported that McDonald’s this week confirmed it has ended a global partnership with IBM, which has been testing this AI tech at select McDonald’s drive-through restaurants since 2021.

McDonald’s has been experimenting with AI before that however. Back in September 2019 the fast food giant had announced it would replace human servers with AI-based voice assistants for its drive-through restaurants in the US.

McDonald’s IBM partnership

That 2019 announcement was made as part of its acquisition of AI start-up Apprente.

Mountain View, California-based Apprente had been founded in 2017 and had been described at the time of its acquisition by McDonald’s as a “leader in the field of conversational voice-based technology.”

The thinking at McDonald’s was that “Apprente’s technology will allow for faster, simpler and more accurate ordering at the Drive Thru.”

But now McDonald’s has confirmed that it will remove its automated AI-based order systems (in partnership with IBM) from over 100 locations around the US.

McDonald’s gave no public reason for ending its test run, according to Restaurant Business, but reportedly told franchises that it would shut down the technology on 26 July.

AI future

A spokesperson for McDonald’s told the publication that it would decide its plans for automated orders by the end of the year, but stressed that “a voice-ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurants’ future”.

The decision to end the IBM partnership for McDonald’s current automated order taker test does not necessarily mean the end of the line for AI at the world’s largest hamburger chain, with the AP reporting that the firm suggesting that it wasn’t ruling out other potential AI drive-thru plans down the road – pointing to “an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly.”

“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 told the Associated Press in a prepared statement.

It added that that it would continue evaluations to “make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year.”

Fast food and AI

The AP reported that other fast food chains in the US have been using AI tech.

Wendy’s partnered with Google Cloud to develop “Wendy’s FreshAI” chatbot. White Castle teamed up with SoundHound AI with a goal of bringing voice-powered AI technology to more than 100 restaurants by the end of 2024.

And a handful of Panera, Arby’s and Popeyes locations have brought OpenCity’s “Tori” voice assistant to their order lanes., the Associated Press reported.

However AP noted that McDonald’s AI-powered drive-thrus has delivered mixed results.

According to AP, McDonald’s automated order taker with IBM received scores of complaints in recent years, for example – with many taking to social media to document the chatbot misunderstanding their orders.

It was reported that the AI tech had difficulty interpreting different accents and dialects, among other challenges affecting order accuracy.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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