McDonald’s Starts Testing Voice Assistants in Drive-Throughs
McDonald’s is testing the idea of voice assistants to run its drive-through services in suburban Chicago, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. The new system is part of a larger technology test, including automated cooking robots in the kitchen.
The appeal of putting voice assistants into the drive-through is obvious. Faster, more efficient ordering for customers, and a potentially huge saving in the long-term by McDonald’s on the payroll. Of course, the downsides are just as easy to see. Automating labor is a contentious issue, and the idea of eliminating many thousands of jobs at fast-food restaurants is not something that would make the company look good to the general public.
And that’s assuming the system works perfectly. Even the best voice recognition systems aren’t perfect. Talking from a car into a microphone when weather conditions are unpredictable, or the customer might not have had elocution lessons, inevitably leads to moments when the voice assistant takes down absurd orders, getting it worse with every attempt at correction. Combine that with robotic chefs and you have the recipe for an I Love Lucy moment of 73 hamburgers fired at high-speed into a car, followed by a hail of french fries. Not to mention, the tradition of teenagers trying to prank fast-food drive-through employees becomes more problematic if the voice AI can’t parse the joke.
McDonald’s may be among the first to explore the drive-through utility of voice assistants, but its restaurants have been starting to look at ways to apply the technology to their businesses for some time. KFC started offering an Alexa skill to order food in India earlier this year, taking advantage of a rapidly growing digital food ordering economy there. It’s also a lot more practical than KFC’s earlier skill, which mainly told chicken jokes.
As for bringing voice assistants into actual restaurants, cost is still going to be a big concern. Though there are savings in the long-term, the initial cost for installing the technology will be significant, especially when multiplied by the number of McDonald’s franchises. The cost of developing foolproof voice technology is also important, though it could vary depending on if McDonald’s does all the development in-house or chooses to partner with an existing voice assistant company. Regardless of the outcome of this test-run, the fact that McDonald’s felt it was worth trying speaks to the growing capabilities of voice assistants.