McDonald’s Ending AI-Driven, Drive-Thru Voice Ordering Trial With IBM

June 19, 2024 by Dave Haynes

While there is no end of buzz about AI and its ability to take over and optimize some human tasks, one of the world’s largest and most influential quick service restaurant chains is lapsing atrial it was running that used AI for automated order-taking in its drive-thru lanes.

McDonald’s has told franchisees it is shutting off its Automated Order Taker program, done in partnership with IBM, before the end of July.

The program has been running in some 100 stores, built off a partnership that started in 2021 and was intended to simplify and speed up operations with voice-activated ordering.

From CNBC:

“While there have been successes to date, we feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly,” said the franchisee memo from Mason Smoot, senior vice president and chief restaurant officer for McDonald’s U.S. “After thoughtful review, McDonald’s has decided to end our current partnership with IBM on AOT. … IBM remains a trusted partner and we will continue to utilize many of their other products across our system.”

Two sources familiar with the technology told CNBC that among its challenges, it had issues interpreting different accents and dialects, which affected order accuracy. McDonald’s declined to comment on accuracy or technology challenges, while IBM did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the tool’s accuracy.

The decision comes as restaurants from Del Taco to Wingstop to Panera and more have been testing out various ways to use AI, from front to back of house as a way to streamline operations. Chipotle and Yum Brands have also been leaders in both robotics and AI investments in recent years.

In a statement, McDonald’s told CNBC it is not ruling out potential AI drive-thru plans in the future, even though it ended the IBM partnership.

My only direct experience with AI voice ordering has been at a trade show (Nova Scotia just got electricity in April, and we’re all excited about running water soon!), with a demo in Google’s ISE stand by the guys from London-based Sodaclick. That, I thought, was pretty slick. It handles accents well, I was told and certainly navigated my request at a faux drive thru display for a glass of cabernet.

It would be silly to suggest this means AI voice ordering doesn’t work, and the burger chain’s exec pretty clearly says they want to “explore voice ordering solutions more broadly,”  which I read as code for the IBM thing being OK, but there’s other stuff out there now that Mickey Ds wants to test.

  1. Wes Dixon says:

    Personally, I liked the ‘non-human’ voice ordering system ( I guess my McD’s was one of the test stores)… It NEVER made a mistake and it was tied into the POS so you could see that the order was correct and it was faster … I don’t think $20 / hour for a human will be an improvement.

  2. Neil Bron Chatwood says:

    It’s still early days for customer facing AI initiatives and my general sense is there is a lot of smoke and mirrors around many trials. It’s nice to see a major brand being (somewhat) upfront about this. If McDonalds and IBM can’t figure this out maybe critical thought should be applied to all those self-aggrandizement LinkedIn posts that are flying around right now….

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