If you visit a McDonald’s drive-thru in Chicago, there’s a chance your order won’t be taken by a human. The world’s largest restaurant chain is testing a voice assistant, which could eventually replace the need for human drive-thru operators.
As CNBC reports, McDonald’s acquired Apprente back in 2019 which specializes in building intelligent speech-based conversational agents. At the time, McDonald’s viewed the technology as a future solution for drive-thru ordering, self-order kiosks, and its mobile app. Now the assistant looks to be good enough to test at select locations for drive-thru orders.
Basically, McDonald’s has created its own version of Siri, but tasked it specifically with handling food orders. 10 restaurants in Chicago are being used as a testbed, and according to Chris Kempczinsk, president and CEO of McDonald’s, the automated ordering system is currently 85% accurate.
This looks to be a long-term transition, with Kempczinsk stating it’s probably going to take a couple of years to get it right and expand to all restaurants, “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,” Kempczinsk explained at the Alliance Bernstein’s Strategic Decisions conference.
Apparently it’s hard to stop employees deciding to help the voice assistant if it’s heard struggling. However, if it’s only 85% accurate, as a customer (and restaurant manager) you’d want that human backup available to avoid frustration.
Kempczinsk is also keen to introduce automation in the kitchen, but the tech isn’t there yet and the costs remain high. “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,” he said, and we shouldn’t expect robot fryers and grills for at least another five years.