McOver! McDonald’s ends its AI program for drive-throughs but says it could return in future

A McDonald’s drive-through in Des Plaines, Illinois, October 2023 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A McDonald’s drive-through in Des Plaines, Illinois, October 2023 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

McDonald's is ending its experimental AI drive-through ordering program after reports that it was too inaccurate and expensive to be worthwhile.

Since 2021, the fast food giant has been testing an IBM-built automated voice recognition system in drive-through queues at more than 100 restaurants across the US.

But last Thursday, the company said it would shut down the service by July 26, 2024, according to an internal email seen by Restaurant Business.

Insiders told CNBC that the system had trouble understanding some people's accents, while industry analysts have previously alleged that McDonald’s franchisees found the technology "underwhelming".

Nevertheless, a spokesperson for McDonald's told The Independent that this probably won't be the last customers see of AI order-taking technology.

"After thoughtful review, McDonald’s has decided to end our current global partnership with IBM on automated order taking beyond this year," a McDonald's spokesperson confirmed to The Independent.

"As we move forward, our work with IBM has given us the confidence that a voice ordering solution for drive-through will be part of our restaurants’ future.

"We see tremendous opportunity in advancing our restaurant technology and will continue to evaluate long-term, scalable solutions that will help us make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year."

The spokesperson added that McDonald's will continue to work with IBM in other parts of its business, and thanked the tech company for its help.

IBM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fast food chains including Wendy's, Carl's Jr, Dunkin, and Hardee's are all testing or already using AI technology in their drive-throughs, while Taco Bell and KFC owner Yum Brands has said it wants to adopt an "AI-first mentality".

Yet automated ordering systems have come under fire for getting customers' orders wrong, as well as for stealthily relying on human workers in the developing world to supplement the AI in up to 70 percent of cases.

Peter Saleh, a restaurant industry analyst with the banking and brokerage firm BTIG, wrote last year that McDonald's franchisees were not finding much value in the test, according to CNBC.

"We are still hearing that accuracy remains in the low-to-mid 80 percent range and operating costs are high," he said.