McDonald’s Tests Automated Drive-Thru Ordering Technology


Exterior of a McDonald's restaurant.

The future is arriving fast at a handful of McDonald’s drive-thru lanes.

The fast-food giant is testing automated voice-ordering technology at 10 stores in Chicago, CEO Chris Kempczinski said at Alliance Bernstein’s Strategic Decisions conference on Wednesday. The McDonald’s leader said the technology has 85 percent order accuracy, and only about 20 percent of orders need to be taken by employees, according to a report by CNBC. But the CEO said not to expect the technology to spread nationwide anytime soon—the process will take more than a couple of years to deploy. One notable challenge has been preventing workers from intervening, the media outlet said. 

“Now there’s a big leap from going to 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the U.S., with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather—and on and on and on,” Kempczinski said.

Operators across the industry have spent the past few years implementing automation to create a frictionless experience and reduce labor pressure in light of shortages and rising wages and benefits. For example, several brands such as Chili’s, Red Robin, and Applebee’s have leveraged tabletop technology to allow customers to pay themselves, freeing up front-of-house staff to focus on other duties.

On the quick-service side, Yum! Brands may be the best recent example in terms of technological investments. The KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Habit Burger Grill parent brought three different digital companies into the fold over the course of three months. Kvantum uses AI to help brands understand consumer behavior and make media and calendar decisions while Ticktuk Technologies allows customers to interact with restaurants through social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and QR codes. The latest purchase was Dragontail Systems Limited, which automates kitchen flow and dispatches delivery drivers.

McDonald’s isn’t a stranger to tech investments either. In September 2019, the burger brand announced that it acquired Apprente, an early stage leader in voice-based, conversational technology. At the time, the company said the technology was tested in selected units and noted in a statement that, “this technology is expected to allow for faster, simpler, and more accurate order taking at the Drive Thru with future potential to incorporate into mobile ordering and kiosks.” That same year, McDonald’s invested in mobile app vendor Plexure and spent $300 million on Dynamic Yield, a leader in personalization and decision logic technology.

The restaurant is also looking into automation with fryers and grills in the kitchen, but the CEO said that was a longer-term plan, CNBC said.

“The level of investment that would be required, the cost of investment, we’re nowhere near to what the breakeven would need to be from the labor cost standpoint to make that a good business decision for franchisees to do,” Kempczinski said.


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