McDonald’s Expands Drive-Thru Voice Assistant Pilot After IBM’s McD Tech Acquisition
McDonald’s has widened its drive-thru voice assistant pilot program to 24 stores, according to a note from BTIG analyst Peter Saleh. The fast-food giant more than doubled the 10 initial McDonald’s that embedded voice AI last summer, demonstrating a commitment to the tech even after selling its McD Tech Labs subsidiary to IBM last year.
Saleh’s franchisee roundup discovered the 24 stores quietly testing the voice AI around Illinois, which is where McDonald’s often tests new menu items, services, and technology. The voice assistant isn’t ready for an official debut on a larger scale, however. The order accuracy of the AI is hovering around 80%, according to the franchisees. That’s basically where McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski had pegged the accuracy last year, with one in five orders still requiring a human. McDonald’s has said previously that the AI will need to hit a consistent 95% accuracy before it will start pushing for universal adoption.
The report didn’t indicate if the partnership with IBM that kicked off after the McD Tech Labs sale has led to changes in technical or business development for the AI drive-thru plans. The arrangement folded McD, born out of the 2019 acquisition of voice tech startup Apprente by McDonald’s. The joint investment and cooperation connect what McDonald’s had developed to IBM’s Watson AI. The McD Tech Labs team that came with the Apprente acquisition almost all left in the wake of the IBM partnership to launch a new customer service voice AI startup called Tenyx, which recently raised $15 million. Watson may end up more important to McDonald’s voice AI future as a result.
The significant advantage McDonald’s and IBM have in terms of potential rapid deployment of a voice assistant doesn’t mean it lacks rivals among other restaurant chains interested in the technology. Colorado-based Valyant AI recently raised $4 million right after scoring a contract with Checkers & Rally’s to install its conversational AI system at franchisee-owned drive-thrus. Checkers has a parallel deal for its corporate-owned locations to embed drive-thru voice assistants from hospitality AI firm Presto. Presto built its platform with conversational AI developer Hi Auto, who produced the voice assistant for another Ohio-born chain, Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken Restaurant. And Wendy’s has started trying out voice tech from Google Cloud