McDonald's not lovin' its AI drive-thru experiment with IBM

Automated voice ordering still on the menu for the future, though

McDonald's is pulling out of its venture with IBM that brought AI to some of its drive-thrus.

The fast food giant is slated to take the feature offline by July 26, according to Restaurant Business, which obtained an internal email sent to franchisees last week. The letter reportedly offers very little explanation for why the program is ending.

In a statement to The Register, McDonald's was similarly tight-lipped. "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 [automated order taking] beyond this year."

The AI drive-thru experiment began in 2021, and was expanded in 2022. Although IBM will no longer be relied on for AI drive-thrus, the two companies still apparently have business ties for other parts of McDonald's operations.

The reasoning behind the end of the AI drive-thru as it currently exists is unclear, and while it could be because it just didn't work very well, the concept isn't dead just yet. "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," the fast food corporation said.

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

Perhaps this "future voice ordering solution" will be provided by a company other than IBM or even made in-house. In that case, maybe McDonald's made its decision because it feels it can get better or cheaper voice recognition tech from another source.

"IBM developed Automated Order Taker (AOT) technologies with McDonald’s to support the emerging use of voice-activated AI in restaurant drive-thrus," a spokesperson for Big Blue told us.

This technology is proven to have some of the most comprehensive capabilities in the industry, fast and accurate in some of the most demanding conditions. While McDonald’s is revaluating and refining its plans for AOT, we look forward to continuing to work with them on a variety of other projects. IBM also is now in discussions and pilots with several Quick-Serve Restaurant clients who are interested in the AOT technology."

Privacy issues might also have played a part in the service's end as one Illinois resident sued McDonald's for allegedly violating the state's privacy laws. However, the case did go down in defeat, according to legal documents reviewed by The Register, which say that the case was dismissed with prejudice in July last year.

McDonald's might not have to go through all this trouble for its drive-thrus anyway, since a regular employee and a very cheap audio setup could surely offer the "voice ordering solution" it's searching for. ®

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