McDonald’s Installs Voice Assistant at 10 Chicago Drive-Thrus, Faces Immediate Legal Challenge

McDonald’s has installed a voice assistant in 10 drive-thrus around Chicago, expanding the pilot program begun a couple of years ago at a single McDonald’s in the area. McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski announced the move at Alliance Bernstein’s Strategic Decisions conference as a small step toward bringing voice AI to every McDonald’s over several years.

McVoice Assistant

The 10 McDonald’s locations have integrated a voice assistant into the drive-thru station where customers pull up to order their food. McDonald’s built its voice assistant using tech from voice tech startup Apprente, which it acquired in 2019 for an unknown amount. Apprente formed the core of McD Labs, a research and development lab based in Silicon Valley. The tech is still very much still in its early pilot phase, according to Kempczinski. He pinned the voice AI at about 85% accuracy. And around 20% of the orders at those stations still end up requiring a human to take down the customer’s requests. In fact, he said an important facet of the new tech is training the employees not to immediately cut in when the voice AI stumbles. There’s a lot to do on the tech before every McDonald’s has a voice assistant capable of handling every single request from customers, Kempczinski explained. So it may be a few years before a McDonald’s voice AI becomes common.

“Now, there’s a big leap between going from 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the U.S. with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather,” Kempczinski said.

McDonald’s is already facing some legal pushback for its AI-assisted drive-thrus. A biometric privacy class action lawsuit was filed last week in an Illinois state court. The lawsuit claims the voice assistant is in violation of the Biometric Information Privacy Act. Illinois is one of only a handful of states with such a law, but as the tech becomes more widespread, these legal questions are likely to become more salient.

Driving Faster

Drive-thrus are a prime target for conversational AI developers, regardless of McDonald’s deliberate pace. . The COVID-19 health crisis has also served to boost interest in the concept due to limited in-person restaurant attendance. According to research by the NPD Group, there was a 22% jump in drive-thru orders last year, but the time for completing an order also rose  30 seconds, possibly because more cars made their way through the line.

Restaurants all over the country are experimenting with the tech on local and national chains. Recently, Ohio chicken restaurant chain Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken Restaurant began augmenting its drive-thru with a voice assistant built by Israeli startup Hi Auto. Mastercard and SoundHound began adding a voice assistant to some White Castle and Sonic restaurants last year, giving it the responsibility to take drive-thru orders and process payments. Meanwhile, Colorado-based Valyant AI has had a steady run of success with integrating a voice assistant into Denver’s Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard. The startup raised $4.5 million at the end of November and has ambitions for a much broader distribution of its tech

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