DALL·E 2024-06-18 11.51.57 – A robot taking orders at a hamburger restaurant drive-thru during golden hour lighting. The scene captures the warm, soft sunlight of the late afterno

McDonald’s Abandons Drive Through AI for Order Taking

McDonald’s made the bold move to acquire a voice technology startup with the promise of automating order-taking at its quick service restaurant (QSR) drive-thrus. Apprente was founded in 2017 and surprised the market when it sold to McDonald’s in 2019. Those events were followed by voice technology being incorporated into McD Labs, followed by the sale of the technology to IBM two years later. In December 2023, McDonald’s and Google Cloud announced a partnership to use generative AI at its restaurants.

The first phase of the company’s meandering conversational AI journey at McDonald’s will come to an end no later than next month, according to a new report from CNBC. According to the article:

The fast-food giant will end a test run of its AI drive-thru technology partnership with IBM in more than 100 restaurants. The so-called Automated Order Taker will be shut off no later than July 26, according to a memo sent to franchisees late last week, obtained by CNBC.

Not the End of AI Order Taking?

This may appear to be McDonald’s backing off from AI-enabled order-taking in its restaurants. However, that is not necessarily the case. The letter to franchisees stated, “While there have been successes to date, we feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly. After thoughtful review, McDonald’s has decided to end our current partnership with IBM on AOT.”

The move may indicate an overall pullback from the conversational AI technology, but the comments do more than leave the door open. There were concerns that the Apprentee technology acquired by IBM had trouble with accents and dialects, which led to inaccurate orders. Generative AI has generally handled these issues better. It will be interesting to see if the Google partnership leads to a reboot with generative AI from Google as the foundation.

More Acute Problems and Better Technology

A key reason for continued interest in voice assistants for drive-thru customers is that restaurants are having trouble hiring staff. This is different from 2019. Many voice AI companies for restaurant drive-thrus would focus on customer satisfaction and efficiency. Now, they focus on addressing order-taking jobs that restaurants have trouble filling. The technology has also changed, and generative AI has proven to be more effective at properly understanding natural language inputs in many use cases. So, there could be an interesting evolution underway where the unrealized promise of NLU-based solutions will ultimately be fulfilled by generative AI.

However, generative AI will not, on its own, solve all of the challenges. You will still have issues of environmental noise and complex vocabularies that quick-serve restaurants must address to support AI-enabled order-taking. The needs for the solutions are more acute, and the technology is now more versatile, but there remain some significant challenges ahead. McDonald’s is one indicator that the objective may not be abandoned, but the NLU-based technology approach has.

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