McDonald's removes AI-powered voice ordering technology from drive thru

MC Donalds.
AP Photo/Seth Perlman

  • McDonald's is removing its automated order-taking technology from over 100 restaurants.
  • The grocery chain partnered with IBM in 2021 to develop and deploy the AI ​​software.
  • In 2023, videos went viral showing flaws in the technology at McDonald's drive-ins.

The advent of generative AI would destroy jobs in numerous industries, including the hospitality industry.

It turns out that we are not quite there yet.

McDonald's told franchisees on Thursday that it would remove AI order-taking technology from more than 100 drive-thru locations, marking the end of a test phase conducted jointly with IBM.

A McDonald's spokesperson confirmed the decision to Business Insider in a statement, saying customers were introduced to the technology in 2021 when McDonald's entered into a global partnership with IBM.

McDonald's drive-thru menu.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

As part of the partnership, IBM acquired McD Tech Labs, which McDonald's founded after acquiring AI language company Apprente in 2019.

The two companies developed and deployed the technology during the testing period to “determine whether an automated voice ordering solution could simplify operations for the crew and provide a faster, improved experience for our fans.”

McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski told CNBC in June 2021 that voice recognition technology is accurate about 85% of the time, but human staff must assist with about one in five orders.

However, his failures went viral on the Internet.

Videos of drive-thru customers having trouble using the automated ordering machine first gained attention on TikTok last year. Some customers said the technology messed up their orders, leading to frustration and anger.

One video showed a woman trying to order water and a tub of vanilla ice cream. The AI ​​system took those items into account, but mistakenly added four ketchup packets and three butter packets to her order.

In another video, a TikTok user said she ordered a large cup of sweet iced tea, but the AI-powered technology added nine cups of sweet iced tea to her instead.

Even though McDonald's and IBM's partnership in the area of ​​automated order taking has ended, the food company said it will continue to explore how technology can improve its workflows.

“Our work with IBM has given us confidence that a voice ordering solution for drive-thru restaurants will be part of the future of our restaurants,” McDonald's said in the statement to BI. “We see tremendous opportunity in the continued development of 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 said it would continue to work with McDonald's on other projects.

“This technology has proven to have some of the industry's broadest capabilities, quickly and accurately under the most demanding conditions,” the company said in a statement. “As McDonald's reassesses and refines its plans for AOT, we look forward to continuing to work with them on a number of other projects.”

The statement added: “IBM is also currently in discussions and pilot projects with several quick service restaurant customers interested in AOT technology.”

According to National Restaurant News, McDonald's began using AI technology in its restaurants as early as 2019. The company installed 700 AI-powered menu boards that included an automated suggestive selling feature.