McDonald’s teaming with IBM for automated drive-thrus


When McDonald’s messes up a drive-thru order consumers can soon blame a computer for their missing fries or Egg McMuffin.

The largest restaurant company in the world is teaming up with IBM in a partnership that is supposed to improve its drive-thru experience, the companies said on Wednesday.

As part of the agreement IBM is acquiring McD Tech Labs, which was created when McDonald’s bought tech company Apprente in 2019, allowing the fast food chain to test automated ordering technology.

This summer, McDonald’s began using artificial intelligence software to take customers’ orders at 10 Chicago-area eateries. 

It was 85 percent accurate, Chief Executive Chris Kempczinski said at the time, adding that the technology will take up to two years to implement at its 14,000 US restaurants.

A McDonald's drive-thru menu board.
This summer McDonald’s conducted a pilot at some 10 Chicago area eateries that used new software for taking customers’ drive-thru orders.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The drive-thru business was critically important during the pandemic when McDonald’s generated 90 percent of its sales via its network of drive-thru windows, up from 70 percent before the outbreak, the company said in April.

Other restaurant companies are experimenting with overhead cameras in their kitchens to ensure that take-out orders are accurate or they are investing in automated ordering kiosks inside their restaurants to help defray their labor costs.

Yellow painted drive-thru sign in a parking lot.
Restaurant drive-thrus were especially important during height of the pandemic when McDonald’s said 90 percent of its sales were from people in their cars.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Automatic ordering can increase speed and accuracy, Kempczinkski said on an earnings call Wednesday, adding that the tests in Chicago have been encouraging. But the task of introducing a variety of languages and inputting the menus from its 40,000 locations worldwide, he said, “is beyond the scale of our core competencies.” 

IBM will develop artificial intelligence to help the restaurant take orders in more languages and dialects, the companies said.

A car is next to a drive-thru menu board.
It will take about two years for McDonald’s to implement automated ordering technology at its US drive-thrus.
Getty Images

The acquisition of McD Tech Labs is expected to close in December and thereafter it will become part of IBM’s Cloud & Cognitive Software division. 

Separately, McDonald’s reported strong sales in the quarter that ended in September when revenue rose by 14 percent to $6.2 billion and beat Wall Street’s expectations. Part of the increase is due to higher prices — up 6 percent from a year ago — but customers have not pushed back, the burger giant said.

McDonald’s shares were up nearly 3 percent to $243 early Wednesday afternoon.

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