McDonald’s ends AI drive-thru trial as fast-food industry tests automation

McDonald’s is ending its test of employing artificial intelligence chatbots at drive-thrus, raising questions over the fast food industry’s rush to roll out the technology.

The world’s largest burger chain will remove automated AI-based order systems from over 100 locations around the US.

The systems, which featured an AI voice responding to customer orders, had been tested as part of a deal between McDonald’s and IBM that began in 2021.

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

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”.

Fast-food chains have taken an immense interest in integrating generative AI into their systems in recent years. Along with McDonald’s, a range of other companies including Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr, and Del Taco all use AI technology at their drive-thrus. Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell and KFC, announced earlier this year that it was instituting an “AI-first mentality” in its fast-food restaurants.

The fast-food industry’s growing affinity for AI comes as companies see the technology as a means of replacing human workers to reduce rising labor costs. After California passed a new mandatory minimum wage law for fast-food workers, businesses rushed towards implementing AI technologies that could perform tasks such as taking customer orders.

While companies have touted AI as the future of the fast-food industry, these technologies have also resulted in viral videos and media coverage documenting when they get orders wrong. McDonald’s drive-thru AI failures circulated on TikTok last year after several videos purported to show the system adding erroneous items like butter packets or multiplying how many items were ordered.

Another video showed two women uncontrollably laughing and calling out for the system to stop adding items to their order as it appeared to put hundreds of dollars worth of McNuggets on their tab.

While automated systems have faced backlash for misunderstanding customer orders, some have also come under scrutiny for relying on outsourced human labor to make them run. The company Presto Automation Inc, which provides AI services for fast-food chains, revealed in an SEC filing last year that it employs workers in countries including the Philippines to get involved in customer interactions about 70% of the time.

In addition to drive-thru orders, some companies have started to explore how generative AI could be used to develop digital chatbots on their apps or utilize image-recognition to determine wait times.

McDonald’s struck a deal with Google in December of last year to create a chatbot called “Ask Pickles” that would be able to train employees on issues such as how to clean restaurant equipment. The companies also agreed to work on other potential uses for generative AI, according to Bloomberg.


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