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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

McDonald’s AI Drive-Thru: Expectations vs. Reality

Dashveenjit is an experienced tech and business journalist dedicated to finding stories for online and print daily publications. She also covers parliament meetings while taking an interest in lifestyle and art-related matters.

Customers were expected to drive up, state their orders into the drive-thru microphone, and have them recorded by an AI instead of being taken on by a human crew member. In theory, AIs should be able to understand more complex requests, offer recommendations based on past orders, reduce errors while simultaneously maintaining fast service without getting bogged down with staffing issues.

McDonald’s AI drive-thru feature has already proven ineffective just a few years after its introduction, as viral videos revealed it being overwhelmed with more basic orders, taking requests from inappropriate cars, and suggesting strange combinations such as ice cream and bacon as food pairings. As a result, after this public failure McDonald’s declared they will no longer work with IBM after July 31, 2024.

This stunning failure raises an intriguing question: can AI play any meaningful role in future drive-thrus, or will ‘Burgerbot’ just join an array of extremely intelligent machines that refuse to comprehend human desires and thus fail miserably?

Pros of AI Drive-thrus McDonald’s problems aside, AI drive-thrus continue to provide significant advantages that attracted them and their competitors to them in the first place. Labor costs continue to increase while staff become harder and harder to come by – having an AI take orders may offer significant cost reduction in future.

AI systems also promise something extremely compelling: complete understanding of even the most intricate customer issues or requests you could ever imagine. Armed with prior order data, the AI provided custom recommendations aimed at increasing average spend.

AI ordering could make for an even speedier, frictionless drive-thru experience. An AI could immediately process orders instead of waiting for human staff members to relay it back, which could prove particularly advantageous during peak hours when cars converge upon a building and its drive-thru is overcrowded.

McDonald has experienced its own share of missteps when implementing AI drive-thrus, with viral blunders ending their dreams of an automated drive-thru experience. Even after years of training, their AI system still frequently failed at taking accurate orders from customers.

As such, any issues during the ordering process could result in customer dissatisfaction and costly order inaccuracies, nullifying any potential labour savings. It also remains to be seen if AI will ever be capable of understanding all of our individual phrasings, accents, and off-menu requests like humans do.

McDonald’s experience illustrates the uncanny valley challenge associated with AI-powered ordering systems. While often impressive, current AI can produce responses that appear almost human but not quite, leading to unsettling experiences for some customers. A human voice actor may need to cover over this AI system.

AI in Drive-thrus
McDonald’s still believes artificial intelligence (AI) will play an integral part in drive-thrus of the future, even after shutting down its initial system. Testing with IBM gave them confidence that voice ordering solutions for drive-thru would become part of our restaurants’ future; as part of a larger initiative to create long-term scalable solutions a company spokesperson elaborated.

Chipotle, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are among the many big chains making moves to incorporate AI drive-thru ordering technology into their businesses. If successful, this innovation could save billions in labour costs across the industry.

Most experts agree that AI drive-thru ordering has just started and must still pass major milestones before becoming truly universal, yet AI language models are rapidly improving; soon ordering-caution issues and other concerns plaguing McDonald’s may become irrelevant.

AI drive-thrus may benefit from offering customers the choice between AI or human flight attendants during the handoff period. This may help build rapport and establish trust over time – an advantage AI offers over drive-thrus.

At the end of the day, McDonalds seems to have been ahead of its time when it came to this roll-out; perhaps too aggressively at times. One Silicon Valley investor quipped yesterday: “To be a pioneer requires taking risks.” In terms of fast food industry trends, streamlining drive-thrus with AI remains an area that needs exploration; though that will take more time.

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