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McDonald's-Automated-Order-Drive-Thru-Test.jpg Ron Ruggless
McDonald's Corp. is testing automated voice order-taking technology at about 10 restaurant drive-thrus in the Chicago area.

McDonald’s tests automated drive-thru order-taking in Chicago area

The 10-unit pilot is about 85% accurate and can take about 80% of orders, CEO Chris Kempczinski tells investor conference

McDonald’s Corp. is testing automated voice order-taking at about 10 drive-thrus in the Chicago area, company CEO Chris Kempczinski told an investor conference Wednesday.

“There is a big leap between going from 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the U.S. with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather — I mean, on and on and on and on,” said Kempczinski, president and CEO of the Chicago-based burger brand, at the AllianceBernstein Strategic Decisions conference.

“Do I think in five years from now you're going to see a voice in the drive-thru?” Kempczinski asked. “I do, but I don't think that this is going to be something that happens in the next year or so.”

Kempczinski said the automated system is about 85% accurate and can take about four-fifths of all orders in tests.

The automated voice order-taking drive-thru test leans on a technology acquisition McDonald’s made in September 2019, when it acquired Apprente, a company that specializes in voice-based conversational technology.

“There's still a lot of work, but I do feel confident that the acquisition that we did with Apprente, the work that we've done since then, we feel good about the technical feasibility of it and the business case,” Kempczinski said in a conference transcript from FactSet.

Humans have to be trained to work alongside the machines, he added.

“One of the things that we've learned in our 10 restaurants that we've done it is: How do you train a crew to actually not want to jump in as soon as they hear a question or a pause?” Kempczinski said. “We've had to do a little bit of training of ‘just keep your hands off the steering wheel, let the computer do its work.’”

Developing a comfort level with the human staff members was important, he added. “We weren't getting enough of the orders to be actually able to be processed through the voice recognition technology,” Kempczinski explained, “because as soon as there was a question or a hiccup, the crew had a tendency to just want to jump in. And it took a little bit of time to actually learn to trust the technology.”

Kempczinski said technology acquisitions can accelerate some aspects of technology for the foodservice company.

“But I think what we've also discovered is, long term, we're not going to be able to always be on the bleeding edge of where technology is,” he said. “The industry is just evolving too rapidly.”

Kempczinski said it was difficult to compete with the best companies in voice recognition, point of sale or customer relationship management systems.

“We're not going to be in that business,” he said. “So 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 who can kind of take that work and scale it for us. I think that's probably more the model. I don't see us spending a lot of time, energy, effort trying to build our own internal capabilities on technology.”

While automation has applications in some parts of the restaurant business, Kempczinski said, the costs of equipment, such as in automated fryers or automated grills, could be prohibitive.

“Most of those are not ready for prime time, nor will they be ready for prime time over the next five years or so,” he said. “The level of investment that would be required, the cost of that equipment, we're nowhere near to what the break-even would need to be from a labor-cost standpoint, to make that a good business decision for franchisees.”

McDonald’s has 38,000 restaurants in nearly 115 countries, with about 93% of those franchised.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

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