McDonald’s Abandons AI for Drive-Thru Orders – What’s Next for Fast-Food CX?

Is McDonald's giving up on AI or just reassessing?

McDonald's logo and drive thru sign at the entrance of McDonald's building
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Published: June 18, 2024

Rhys Fisher Fisher

McDonald’s has announced that it is discontinuing its AI drive-thru ordering experiment.

Having struck a partnership with IBM in 2021, the fast-food behemoth has since deployed automated voice bots to take orders at more than 100 of its American restaurants in a bid to boost efficiency.

However, in an official statement released this week, McDonald’s confirmed that the automated order-taking (AOT) tech will be removed from all restaurants by July 26, 2024.

Despite the abrupt cancelation, the hamburger aficionado seemed to suggest that it had been happy with some elements of the trial, stating that “a voice-ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurants’ future.”

“The goal of the test was to determine if an automated voice ordering solution could simplify operations for crew and create a faster, improved experience for our fans.

Through our partnership with IBM, we have captured many learnings and feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly. After thoughtful review, McDonald’s has decided to end our current global partnership with IBM on AOT beyond this year.

“IBM remains a trusted partner and we will still utilize many of their products across our global System.”

So, why exactly did McDonald’s choose to end the partnership? And what will the company’s next customer service and experience steps be?

Is Some Publicity Bad Publicity?

While the fast-food provider focused on the positives during its announcement and has previously claimed that its AOT program is accurate approximately 85% of the time, the AI-powered drive-thrus have come under scrutiny thanks to a number of viral TikTok videos.

As seen in the clip below, the customer’s order was incorrect because the AOT bot picked up information from a customer at a different machine. When confronted with the error, the machine compounded the issue by adding an additional nine unwanted items, causing the customer to abandon their order.


#greenscreen @mcdonalds #nine #sweettea #mcdonalds #robots #friday #caffeine

♬ original sound – Ren Adams

This is just one example of several videos that have racked up tens of thousands of views. Others include an error that resulted in over $250 worth of McNuggets meals being added to an order and an AI agent that confused ice cream with ketchup and butter.

McDonald’s has not confirmed whether or not these public shortcomings were a factor in the decision to cancel the partnership, with IBM remaining bullish about the quality of its AOT technology – which it is testing with other fast-food businesses, including Wendy’s, Hardee’s, and Dunkin –commenting:

This technology is proven to have some of the most comprehensive capabilities in the industry, [it is] fast and accurate in some of the most demanding conditions.

The Next Step in the McDonald’s AI Adventure

Regardless of why McDonald’s chose to end the AOT partnership with IBM, it is clear that the company plans to continue experimenting with voice-ordering capabilities.

Given the recent announcement that it will be leveraging Google’s generative AI (GenAI) offerings in “thousands” of its stores, this could well include AI drive-thru solutions, with the development of an “Ask Pickles” chatbot already mentioned.

It is important to note, however, that both sides have been vague on the specifics of the McDonald’ s-Google collaboration. One of the few concrete details is that the tech would help provide customers with “hotter, fresher food.”

The company’s adoption of AI reflects a wider trend in fast-food chains using automation to enhance operations.

Innovations include mobile ordering, in-store kiosks, drone deliveries, and AI-driven recruitment tools. Companies like SoundHound, Kea, ConverseNow, and Presto Automation are leading the way with restaurant partnerships.

McDonald’s could well be emulating its burger-flipping rival, Wendy’s – an industry leader that has already effectively implemented similar technologies to improve its AI integration strategies and operational efficiency.

More Fast-Food CX News

As discussed above, AI and automation are becoming increasingly popular in the fast-food CX space as restaurants experiment with the most effective way to leverage the tech.

One way companies are utilizing AI is through dynamic pricing. Driven by machine learning, this pricing model is highly adaptable and quickly responds to events or issues, offering customers real-time price adjustments, whether discounts or increases.

Indeed, Wendy’s recently announced plans to introduce dynamic pricing but had to retract the idea due to customer backlash, explaining that their intentions were misunderstood.

The company was forced to clarify that it would not be using surge pricing but would instead be implementing digital menu boards to display varying options at different times of the day.

Despite Wendy’s highlighting “discounts” and “value offers,” customers will still encounter varying prices for the same product at different times.

You can find out more about how dynamic pricing is impacting the fast-food and retail industry by reading the full story here.


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