McDonald's to test run AI-powered drive-thru windows that don't need employees to take orders
In another move designed to shrink its workforce and save on labor expenses, McDonald's is testing out its artificial intelligence-driven drive-thrus
at 10 locations in Chicago.
In these locations, workers will no longer be taking down the drive-thru orders of customers. A computer will do it instead
, according to McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski.
On Wednesday, June 2, Kempczinski spoke at the Strategic Decisions conference of investment firm Alliance Bernstein. He said the A.I. drive-thrus are seeing about 85 percent order accuracy. The remaining 15 percent of orders at the automated windows cannot be jotted down by the voice-ordering technology and still require human intervention.
If the implementation of the technology is successful, Kempczinski said it could be rolled out to locations across the world. This move would deprive thousands of employees of stable, good-paying jobs.
But Kempczinski said the technology will take more than one or two years to test run and successfully implement. No decision has yet been made on whether the A.I. tech would be installed at other restaurants across the United States.
"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," he explained.
One other challenge Kempczinski pointed out was properly training employees to stop themselves from jumping in to help take down drive-thru orders.
McDonald's automating more of its stores at the expense of workers
McDonald's voice-ordering technology was built by Apprente
. Acquired by McDonald's in 2019, Apprente focuses on the research and development of A.I. speech-driven technology. (Related: McDonald's acquires machine-learning startup to develop personalized menus using AI
The fast-food giant is venturing into A.I.-powered drive-thrus because it believes it can reduce customer wait times. The automated drive-thru windows can also supposedly help in-store workers transition between shifts.
Chris Albrecht, writing for food tech news website The Spoon
, speculated that if the rollout of the A.I. drive-thrus is successful, it could be tied in with other automated systems in the restaurant. These future automated systems could remember a customer's purchasing history
to automatically make recommendations.
The company is also looking to add other automated features to its drive-thru windows, including express lanes for digital orders and conveyor belts that carry food out to customers.
"With improved understanding accuracy, a restaurant would no longer need a dedicate person to take (or confirm) a drive-thru order," wrote Albrecht. He adds that this might free up more McDonald's staff to expedite orders or do more customer service work. In reality, the full rollout of automated drive-thru windows could be used as an excuse for massive layoffs.
In addition to automating the drive-thru window, the company is also looking to fully automate other parts of its restaurant.
Kempczinski said his company has been considering technology that can automate parts of the kitchen, such as the fryers and the grills. But he said this won't be rolled out en masse for another five years, despite the availability of the technology.
"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 explained.
McDonald's began considering introducing a lot more automation in its stores around 2016 after employees began demanding that the minimum hourly wage be increased to $15. This is when then-CEO Ed Rensi noted that it would be cheaper for McDonald's to use robots than people.
"It's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who's inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries," he said. "If you can't get people for a reasonable minimum wage, you're going to get machines to do the work."
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