McDonald’s to End Disastrous AI Drive-Thru Experiment

By: David Donovan | Published: Jun 18, 2024

McDonald’s is reportedly intending to end its artificial intelligence-powered drive-thru order system at more than 100 restaurants after furious clients revealed getting things they didn’t order.

The blunders included adding nine sweet teas to one customer’s order and giving another customer an ice cream finished off with bacon.

Pilot Program

Two years ago, the Chicago-based fast food chain and IBM collaborated on the pilot program at selected franchises.

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IBM office in Beijing, China. Nicknamed "torch building" and "dragon's head".

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However, Restaurant Business reports that the company informed franchisees via email on Thursday that the program will end on July 26. However, the company also stated that it is likely to reintroduce the use of AI at its drive-thru windows at some point in the future.

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Taking Stock

In an email that Restaurant Business was able to obtain, McDonald’s USA chief restaurant officer Mason Smoot sent franchisees: “While there have been successes to date, we feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly.”

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“After a thoughtful review, McDonald’s has decided to end our current partnership with IBM on AOT and the technology will be shut off in all restaurants currently testing it no later than July 26, 2024,” according to the statement.

Customer Response

Smoot added that McDonald’s will keep on assessing its arrangements to make “an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year.”

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Unsplash user Brett Jordan

In February, a TikTok user known as “Ren” posted a video response in which she depicted how cross-talk from an adjoining drive-thru station drove the McDonald’s AI to add nine sets of sweet tea to her bill — rather than the hash brown, sweet tea, and Coke that she requested.

TikTok Testimonials

Another TikToker, Madilynn Cameron, posted a video that shows her “fighting with a McDonald’s robot” as she entered a drive-thru and submitted a request for vanilla ice cream without caramel — just for the machine to add cream packets instead.

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Unsplash user Jurij Kenda

In the video from November 2022, she said, “I just want a large water and a cup of ice cream.”

AI Errors

Cailyn Sykora shared a video on TikTok in January that showed the AI-powered drive-thru adding more than 20 orders for a $222 McNuggets Meal.

three red and yellow mcdonalds boxes

Unsplash user Meghan Hessler

“The McDonald’s robot is wild,” the subtitle on the TikTok video read in Sykora’s review of the AI implementation.

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Past Uses

McDonald’s use of artificial intelligence can be linked back to 2019 when it obtained the startup firm Apprente, which presented AI voice solutions that can be utilized in client service settings.

Three men standing at a table with Apprente branding

X user Apprente_AI

The aim of the acquisition of Apprente was to eventually implement AI-powered technology at the drive-thru locations of the restaurants to speed up and streamline order-taking.

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McDonald’s Research

After that, McDonald’s merged Apprente with its own AI-focused division, McD Tech Labs. IBM acquired McD Tech Labs in 2021.

IBM ads on display at JFK Airport, 2013

Wikimedia Commons user Rosemaryetoufee

IBM and McDonald’s collaborated on the expansion of the rollout of its AI-powered automated order-taking as part of the deal.

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IBM Collaboration

According to information provided to Restaurant Business by McDonald’s, the purpose of the pilot program was to determine whether the brand-new technology had the potential to speed up the ordering process at drive-thru locations.

IBM CHQ in Armonk, NY, USA

Wikimedia Commons user Treesmittenex

According to the company, IBM will continue to be a “trusted partner,” and they “will still utilize many of their products across our global system.”

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Future Potential

McDonald’s stated, “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.”

red and yellow mcdonalds fries pack on the ground

Unsplash user Lucas van Oort

They went on to state: “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.”

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Broader Implementation

The publication was informed by a spokesperson for IBM that the company is negotiating with other fast food chains regarding the implementation of its AI-powered technology.

McDonald LED signage at night time

Unsplash user Carlos Macías

“IBM developed automated order taker technologies with McDonald’s to support the emerging use of voice-activated AI in restaurant drive-thrus,” according to the statement.

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Shifting Focus

In IBM’s statement, they concluded: “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.”

a mcdonald's restaurant lit up at night

Unsplash user VLADISLAV BOGUTSKI

“While McDonald’s is reevaluating and refining its plans for AOT, we look forward to continuing to work with them on a variety of other projects,” as per IBM.

Other fast food chains have additionally utilized artificial intelligence innovations to assist with smoothing out their customer support experience.

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