McDonald’s Will End AI Drive-Thru Partnership With IBM

Pradip Maheshwari
McDonald's Will End AI Drive-Thru Partnership With IBM

McDonald’s Corporation has announced it will terminate its highly publicized partnership with tech giant IBM to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) enabled voice recognition software at its drive-thru windows across the United States.

The pivotal decision comes after a tumultuous two-year pilot program that was beset by a litany of customer complaints citing frequent order errors, misunderstandings caused by the AI’s inability to comprehend accents and speech patterns, and extended wait times as drive-thru attendants struggled to resolve the ensuing confusion.

“While the premise of AI-assisted voice ordering showed promise, the reality failed to meet our rigorous standards for delighting customers with hot, accurate orders delivered at the speed of modern convenience,” said McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski in a terse statement. “We owe it to our valued guests to constantly innovate, but not at the expense of the exceptional service experience they’ve come to expect from McDonald’s.”

The strategic reversal marks a sobering reality check for the hype around AI adoption across consumer industries. Despite its potential, the embryonic natural language processing technology proved no match for the complexities of real-world speech and the dizzying array of menu customizations customers routinely request.

“They couldn’t get my order right no matter how carefully I enunciated,” griped longtime McDonald’s customer Janice Wheeler of Des Moines, Iowa. “I’d ask for no onions, and sure enough, onions all over the place. Made me long for the old days of just talking to a real person.”

Under the partnership announced in 2021, McDonald’s and IBM collaborated to develop and deploy a proprietary AI engine to transcribe drive-thru orders at a subset of McDonald’s locations across several states. The AI, trained on massive datasets of past drive-thru audio, was intended to boost order accuracy while alleviating staffing shortages that have plagued the entire service industry.

Experts say the drive-thru use case proved an overly ambitious first test for the fledgling voice AI technology, which struggles with background noise, regional dialects, speech patterns and the open-ended complexities of customized ordering not found in more narrow AI applications like voice assistants.

“Ordering a McDonald’s meal involves so many variable menu choices and substitutions that it really pushes the boundaries of what today’s voice AI can handle seamlessly and accurately,” explained Jeremy Achin, CEO of the Q-Lingual voice computing consultancy. “Just accent alone can be a huge challenge, never mind mumbling, slurring, or the cacophony of other audio getting mixed in from the drive-thru environment itself.”

The rocky AI rollout also underscores the challenges McDonald’s and its franchisees face in regard to hiring and training workers amid the tight labor market. Many franchisees hoped the new voice AI system would help reduce staffing headaches, only to find themselves dedicating more labor hours to resolving order errors and ensuring quality control.

“It was more trouble than it was worth,” admitted Ron Phelps, who operates six McDonald’s franchises in the Kansas City area where the new technology was deployed last year. “We had to keep crew on hand to constantly monitor the AI orders and make corrections. The costs negated any labor savings, and we started losing sales from frustrated, hangry customers who just couldn’t get their meal right.”

While the company touted hundreds of millions in annualized cost savings potential if the system worked as intended, the bungled rollout now leaves McDonald’s on the hook for sunk investments into customizing the IBM voice AI platform as well as upgraded drive-thru hardware and telecom infrastructure to support the AI ordering workflow.

Still, the leadership team insists the company remains committed to exploring advanced technologies to optimize restaurant operations and the consumer experience over the long term. McDonald’s stated it will initiate an evaluation process later this year to identify alternative, enterprise-grade voice AI partners and solutions to potentially deploy at scale down the road.

“AI is going to transform our industry, there’s no denying that,” avowed Kempczinski in an internal memo to employees and franchisees announcing the reversal. “But we have to get it right and apply it pragmatically. Our customers deserve not just innovation for innovation’s sake, but solutions that genuinely raise the bar on convenience and satisfaction.”

The company also hinted that voice ordering may ultimately take a back seat to other AI and automation initiatives focused on streamlining back-of-house kitchen operations and food production in the nearer term.

As the AI dust settles at McDonald’s drive-thrus nationwide, only one thing seems certain – humans will keep taking your order, at least for now. And many customers seem just fine with that timeless tradition continuing to reign, at least until AI can truly comprehend all their culinary cravings with pixel-perfect precision.

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