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McDonald’s just fired its drive-thru AI and is turning to humans instead

McDonald’s (MCD) is taking a step back from artificial intelligence—at the drive-thru, at least.

The fast-food giant has ended its two-year partnership with IBM (IBM), which saw it testing AI to take people’s voice orders at drive-thru kiosks. The company has been testing the AI at over 100 restaurants, but now plans to remove the systems by the end of next month.

“While there have been successes to date, we feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly,” said Mason Smoot, chief restaurant officer for McDonald’s USA, in an email obtained by trade publication Restaurant Business.

Introducing AI into the order-taking process was meant to speed up the overall turnaround time for customers. It’s unclear if that goal was achieved, but the email from Smooth did note that the company planned to make “an informed decision on a future voice-ordering solution by the end of the year” and said the company was optimistic about the practice, despite some public missteps.


TikTok is laden with videos of confused customers getting items they never asked for, ranging from nine sweet teas to two pats of butter. “Cream packet? No! I just want a large water and a cup of ice cream. Not a ketchup packet! Oh, my God,” one customer exclaims to the bot in one video—which can be heard asking questions in the background.

"The goal of the test was to determine if an automated voice ordering solution could simplify operations for crew and create a faster, improved experience for our fans," McDonald's said in a statement to Fortune. "Through our partnership with IBM, we have captured many learnings and feel there is an opportunity to explore voice ordering solutions more broadly. ... 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. 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."

IBM is also working with chains including Wendy’s, Hardee’s, and Dunkin' on using AI to take drive-thru orders.

McDonald’s has had a long-standing interest in AI. In 2019, it bought AI firm Apprente with the goal of speeding up order-taking. That same year it bought Dynamic Yield, which specializes in personalization and decision logic technology, and took a 10% stake in Plexure, the vendor for the McDonald's app. McDonald's has a new internal team called McD Tech Labs, and the company has said it plans to expand its presence in Silicon Valley, hiring additional engineers, data scientists, and tech experts.

Dynamic Yield's tech, for instance, promotes different menu items based on time of day or weather, boosting customer spending.

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