McDonald’s is ending its AI order-taking technology at the drive-thru.

The fast-food giant partnered with IBM to pilot the innovation. Although the current experiment is ending, McDonald’s said it’s not giving up on the technology.

“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 company said in a statement. “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 brand’s investment in AI dates back years ago. McDonald’s announced in 2019 an agreement to purchase Apprente, an early-stage leader in voice-based, conversational technology. Two years later, the brand turned to IBM to accelerate growth. As part of the partnership, IBM acquired McD Tech Labs, which was formed following the purchase of Apprente.

McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said IBM’s expertise in developing customer-care solutions using artificial intelligence and natural language processing would boost the advancement and expansion of its automated order-taking technology. For IBM, this acquisition was meant to enhance its current work with Watson, an AI system utilized by businesses in various sectors, including finance, healthcare, telecommunications, and retail.

A few months before the agreement was announced, Kempczinski said McDonald’s was testing automated voice-ordering technology at 10 stores in Chicago. The technology had 85 percent order accuracy and only 20 percent of orders needed to be taken by employees, according to a report by CNBC. One notable challenge was preventing workers from intervening, the media outlet said. 

In June 2022, BTIG analyst Peter Saleh conducted a round of checks with franchisees that included a 24-store test of drive-thru voice ordering in Illinois. The operators said accuracy was in the low 80 percent range—well below the 95 percent-plus mark needed for wider adoption.

Several restaurant chains have tested automated voice-ordering at the drive-thru in the past few years, including Wendy’s, Taco Bell, White Castle, Taco John’s, and Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. Checkers & Rally’s has managed to deploy the technology at hundreds of restaurants and even added Spanish as another language for customers.

IBM plans to partner with other quick-service chains interested in automated-ordering technology. It will also continue to work with McDonald’s.

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