McDonald's cuts AI drive-thru trial

McDonald's, the global fast-food giant, has announced the conclusion of its two-year automated order taking (AOT) trial at drive-thrus across more than 100 US restaurants.

The test, conducted in partnership with IBM since 2021, will be terminated by 26 July 2024, according to an internal memo.

Despite ending the current trial, McDonald's remains optimistic about the future of voice-activated AI in its operations. Mason Smoot, chief restaurant officer for McDonald's USA, stated in the memo, "While there have been successes to date, we feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly."

The company emphasised that IBM continues to be a "trusted partner" and that McDonald's will still utilise many of their products globally. However, the fast-food chain plans to evaluate alternative voice ordering solutions, with Smoot indicating they will "make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year."

This move comes amidst a broader industry trend towards AI integration in fast-food operations. Competitors such as Wendy's, Hardee's, and Del Taco have implemented similar technologies, often aimed at reducing labour costs and streamlining operations.

However, the rollout of AI in drive-thrus has not been without challenges. Viral social media videos have highlighted instances of AI systems misunderstanding orders, adding erroneous items, or multiplying quantities, leading to customer frustration and amusement.

Despite these setbacks, McDonald's remains committed to technological advancement. Smoot emphasised in his message, "IBM has given us confidence that a voice ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurant's future, and we want to sincerely thank IBM and the restaurant teams that have been part of this crucial test."

The company recently partnered with Google to develop "Ask Pickles," an AI chatbot designed to train employees on tasks such as equipment cleaning.

As the fast-food industry continues to navigate the integration of AI, McDonald's decision to reassess its approach while maintaining faith in the technology's potential reflects the complex balance between innovation and practical implementation in customer-facing operations.

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