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McDonald's ends IBM partnership in fast food AI drive-thrus

In a move that could reshape the future of drive-thru ordering at fast-food restaurants, McDonald's has confirmed the end of its global partnership with IBM, which had been testing artificial intelligence (AI) technology at select McDonald's drive-thrus since 2021. However, this decision does not signal the end of the company's pursuit of automated voice ordering solutions.



The Chicago-based fast-food giant suggested that it remains open to exploring other potential AI drive-thru plans, noting "an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly." In a prepared statement, McDonald's stated, "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 added that it would continue evaluations to "make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year."


The Rise of AI in Fast Food Operations

McDonald's decision reflects the growing trend of fast-food chains exploring the implementation of AI across various operations, driven by the potential to maximize speed and cut costs. Numerous competitors have already embarked on this technological journey.

In the United States, Wendy's partnered with Google Cloud to develop "Wendy's FreshAI" chatbot, while White Castle teamed up with SoundHound AI, aiming to bring voice-powered AI technology to more than 100 restaurants by the end of 2024. Additionally, select Panera, Arby's, and Popeyes locations have introduced OpenCity's "Tori" voice assistant to their order lanes.

Internationally, Popeyes U.K. launched its first AI-powered drive-thru (dubbed "Al") last month, reporting a 97% accuracy rate during a pilot program.


Mixed Success and Ongoing Challenges

However, the success of AI-powered drive-thrus has been mixed thus far. McDonald's automated order taker with IBM received numerous complaints in recent years, with many customers taking to social media to document instances of the chatbot misunderstanding their orders.

TikTok videos showcased the system placing numerous orders for chicken nuggets despite customers' attempts to cancel, adding strange extras like ice cream with ketchup and butter, or picking up orders from other nearby cars.

According to unnamed sources familiar with the technology, the system has faced challenges interpreting different accents and dialects, among other factors affecting order accuracy. While McDonald's declined to comment on the automated order taker's accuracy, IBM initially stated that "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."


Looking Ahead: McDonald's and IBM's Future Plans

Despite the end of their AI drive-thru partnership, both McDonald's and IBM maintained that they would continue their relationship on other projects. McDonald's stated that it still plans to use many of IBM's products across its global system.

Meanwhile, IBM revealed that it is currently "in discussions and pilots" with several other quick-serve restaurant clients interested in the automated order taker.

According to reports, the automated order technology will be shut off in McDonald's locations testing it "no later than July 26, 2024."

McDonald's has also recently launched a multi-year partnership with Google Cloud, which includes plans to apply generative AI "across a number of key business priorities" in restaurants worldwide, in addition to moving restaurant computations to the cloud.

As the fast-food industry continues to explore the potential of AI and automation, McDonald's decision to end its partnership with IBM while keeping an open mind for future voice ordering solutions highlights the ongoing pursuit of finding the right balance between technological innovation and customer satisfaction.

The quest for the perfect AI drive-thru experience remains a work in progress, with companies constantly adapting and refining their approaches to meet the evolving demands of the industry and consumer preferences.

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