McDonald's drive-thru lane

McDonald’s is Getting Rid of AI Technology in Drive-Thrus

McDonald’s hosts the largest fast food drive-thru system in the world, boasting over 27,000 drive-thru locations as of December 2023. To further expand its drive-thru dominance, the fast food giant entered into a partnership with IBM three years ago, making over 100 select McDonald’s drive-thru lanes experimental ground for testing automated order-taking technology — and, judging by customer feedback, the tests have certainly been educational for the company.

In 2021, Mickey D’s began replacing human drive-thru attendants with AI ordering systems. At first, the IBM-supplied AI inspired countless laugh-worthy TikToks depicting egregious issues in order accuracy. AI also proved successful in upselling customers to buy more items, making their orders more expensive, and still remains broadly more accessible to tech-trained Gen Z and Millennial customers than to older patrons. Even now, the technology is still very much in the development phase, but overall, the answer to the question “Is AI order-taking effective for speeding up operations and simplifying employee workload?” ended up being “It has the potential to be.”

Now, McDonald’s has just announced that it will be removing the IBM AI order-taking technology from the 100+ drive-thrus currently equipped with it no later than July 26. McDonald’s isn’t giving up on AI drive-thru ordering systems. It’s just going to explore another lane (pun intended) to get there, ostensibly pursuing another partnership with a different company after ending its partnership with IBM. 

McDonald’s and IBM are ending their partnership, but drive-thru AI isn’t going away

McDonald's employee handing patron a drive-thru food order

“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, and we want to sincerely thank IBM and the restaurant teams that have been part of this crucial test,” Mason Smoot, chief restaurant officer for McDonald’s USA, explained in an email to franchisees on Thursday, via Restaurant Business. “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.” The company also expressed the desire to work with IBM on other projects in the future. Looking forward, restaurant tech company Presto Automation has been making recent strides in developing drive-thru AI.

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Past announcements of McDonald’s expansion plans might suggest that the company wants to incorporate AI more broadly at its restaurants in the future. In an official press release from December, the company outlined an aggressive expansion plan, “Accelerating the Arches,” that aims to increase its 41,822 restaurants worldwide to 50,000 restaurants by 2027 (which could pose further issues for urban planning in some major cities, but we digress). To reach this goal, McDonald’s says it will focus its efforts on personalized digital offers via the McDonald’s mobile app and tightening the efficiency of its drive-thru lanes — perhaps with increased AI technology. 

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