Tech to Table

McDonald's is testing automated drive-thru ordering at 10 Chicago restaurants

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Key Points
  • Ten McDonald's restaurants in Chicago are testing automated drive-thru ordering using artificial intelligence software, CEO Chris Kempczinski said Wednesday.
  • Kempczinski said the technology is about 85% accurate and can take 80% of orders.
  • McDonald's obtained the technology through its 2019 acquisition of Apprente.

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Vehicles sit in drive-thru lanes at a McDonald's Corp. restaurant in Princeton, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

At 10 McDonald's locations in Chicago, workers aren't taking down customers' drive-thru orders for McNuggets and french fries — a computer is, CEO Chris Kempczinski said Wednesday.

Kempczinski said the restaurants using the voice-ordering technology are seeing about 85% order accuracy. Only about a fifth of orders need to be a taken by a human at those locations, he said, speaking at Alliance Bernstein's Strategic Decisions conference.

Over the last decade, restaurants have been leaning more into technology to improve the customer experience and help save on labor. In 2019, under former CEO Steve Easterbrook, McDonald's went on a spending spree, snapping up restaurant tech. One of those acquisitions was Apprente, which uses artificial intelligence software to take drive-thru orders. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Kempczinski said the technology will likely take more than one or two years to implement.

"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 said.

Another challenge has been training restaurant workers to stop themselves from jumping in to help.

McDonald's has also been looking into automating more of the kitchen, such as its fryers and grills, Kempczinski said. He added, however, that that technology likely won't roll out within the next five years, even though it's possible now.

"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 said.

And because restaurant technology is moving so fast, Kempczinski said, McDonald's won't always be able to drive innovation itself or even keep up. The company's current strategy is to wait until there are opportunities that specifically work for it.

"If we do acquisitions, it will be for a short period of time, bring it in house, jumpstart it, turbo it and then spin it back out and find a partner that will work and scale it for us," he said.

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