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By Mike Pomranz | FoodAndWine.Com

Troy Warren #foodie-all

The fast-food chain says the system can handle about 80 percent of orders, after a trial at about ten Chicago locations.

Many, many moons ago, the idea of a drive-thru itself seemed technologically-advanced: Order a meal through a talking box without ever leaving your car! More recently, however, fast-food companies have been looking to enhance the drive-thru experience in ways that truly feel futuristic, like by tracking license plates to create customer profiles or using artificial intelligence to predict what people want to order. At least two companies, McDonald’s and White Castle, have been testing replacing humans with automated voice ordering at the drive-thru speaker, and apparently, McDonald’s believes their trial is on target to become the future of ordering.

On Wednesday, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski discussed the company’s ongoing automated voice trial, which is currently taking place at about ten locations in Chicago, at the AllianceBernstein Strategic Decisions conference, according to Nation’s Restaurant News.

“There is a big leap between going from the restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the U.S. with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather—I mean, on and on and on and on,” Kempczinski began. However, later, he seemed to imply that the robot takeover was just a matter of time. “Do I think in five years from now you’re going to see a voice in the drive-thru? [. . .] I do, but I don’t think that this is going to be something that happens in the next year or so.”

Kempczinski reportedly explained that, currently, the system—which is largely based on technology from Apprente, a tech firm McDonald’s acquired in 2019—is about 85 percent accurate and can successfully handle about 80 percent of orders in general. “There’s still a lot of work, but I do feel confident that the acquisition that we did with Apprente, the work that we’ve done since then, we feel good about the technical feasibility of it and the business case,” he was quoted as saying.

Kempczinski also seemed to imply that the employees, maybe even more so than the customers, were having difficulty making the adjustment. “One of the things that we’ve learned in our ten restaurants that we’ve done it is: How do you train a crew to actually not want to jump in as soon as they hear a question or a pause?” he was quoted as stating. “We weren’t getting enough of the orders to be actually able to be processed through the voice recognition technology [. . .] because as soon as there was a question or a hiccup, the crew had a tendency to just want to jump in. And it took a little bit of time to actually learn to trust the technology.”

That said, it’s easy to see why employees might be reluctant to trust the technology that is being tested to potentially replace them. It would be interesting to hear Kempczinski’s tone if the McDonald’s board began testing an AI CEO.


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