McDonald's pauses AI ordering at drive thrus

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McDonald’s will halt the pilot for an artificial intelligence-powered ordering assistant, potentially marking a setback for the technology’s takeover of daily life.

The fast food giant will end its two-year partnership with IBM for the AI system by July 26, meaning the tech will be removed from about 100 stores nationwide, industry publication Restaurant Business reported Friday.

The “Automated Order Technology” developed by the IBM partnership allowed customers to speak with an AI-powered assistant instead of a real person at the drive-thru order window. 

The company told franchisees that while the IBM partnership is ending late next month, it hasn’t closed the door on future development for drive-thru order technology powered by AI.

“While there have been successes to date, we feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly,” McDonald’s executive Mason Smoot wrote in a message acquired by Restaurant Business. “IBM has given us confidence that a voice ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurant’s future, and we want to sincerely thank IBM and the restaurant teams that have been part of this crucial test.”

The fast food chain told Restaurant Business that it will continue to work with IBM on other technologies for its business.

McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food chain to dabble in AI ordering. Both White Castle and Wendy’s are among the companies who have announced plans to roll out automated ordering in some capacity. Checkers and Rally’s, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s and Dunkin have also begun development on the tech, according to Restaurant Business.

The tech development balances a desire to lower staffing needs to save money with the need for quick and accurate service, though it’s currently unclear if the technology is good enough to replace drive-thru staff entirely. Some customers have complained that the tech can’t understand certain accents or can have trouble discerning background noise.

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