McDonald’s adds AI voice technology to its Drive-thrus

The world’s most successful dining chain adds to its considerable tech stack.
12 September 2019

McDonald’s Drive-thrus are on the path to automation. Source: Shutterstock

Serving 68 million customers per day across 36,000 restaurants worldwide, McDonald’s continues to deliver on its age-old promise of fast, efficient and consistent food and service. 

Continuing that run means McDonald’s must keep pace with changing customer and market demands and leans on the latest technology available to do so. The sheer size of the company and its customer base means that, in pursuit of a constantly evolving service, the fast-food giant is not just working with tech partners; it can make more commercial sense to buy them outright. 

Earlier this year, McDonald’s made its biggest acquisition in 20 years with the US$300 million buy-out of personalization and decision logic company Dynamic Yield.  

The technology would allow McDonald’s to provide customers with a real-time,‘Amazon-like’ experience at the Drive-thru menu board. Soon to be rolled out to in-store menus and its app, customers could be shown food and drink options based on time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic, and trending menu items.

The purchase showed that, while traditional food and beverage industries may be at risk from disruptive, app-based food delivery startups, there is plenty of ground to be made with new innovations that can offer enhanced ‘online-like’ customer service experiences. 

The company went on to buy a near 10 percent share of Plexure in April, a New Zealand-based mobile app vendor worth US$5 million, which now used in its mobile app within 48 countries outside the US. Plexure’s CEO, Craig Herbison, called it a “tremendous vote of confidence from our largest customer.”

Voice tech in the Drive-thru

Six months later, the fast-food firm is continuing that precedent having reached an agreement to purchase Apprente, a Silicon Valley voice-ordering technology startup, capable of understanding multiple languages and accents. With McDonald’s making 65 percent of its sales in the US through drive-thru windows, according to QSR Magazine, the technology could cut time and simplify the order process, ultimately driving more revenue across its thousands of stores.

“Building our technology infrastructure and digital capabilities are fundamental to our Velocity Growth Plan and enable us to meet rising expectations from our customers while making it simpler and even more enjoyable for crew members to serve guests,” said McDonald’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Steve Easterbrook.

The technology will be deployed to its self-order kiosks in due course— which have been generating higher average checks in the US— and its mobile ordering service. 

While no price tag was announced, Apprente earlier raised US$4.8 million from investors. Following the acquisition, the firm’s staff— made up of machine learning and computational linguistics specialists— will become “founding members” of McDonald’s new McD Tech Labs, which will work from the firm’s innovation Center outside Chicago. 

Automating fast food

McDonald’s aggressive tech purchases are strong indicators of its bid to automate drive-thrus and, in doing so, the origin of a major chunk of revenue.

The hospitality industry— and fast-food sector, in particular— is one of the first expected to be automated in the coming years, due to the repetitive nature of customer service and meal preparation, and to help manage its staffing shortage with 800,000 unfilled positions in the US last year.

At the same time, however, the wider US hospitality industry accounts for one in every eight jobs available in the States and will be one of the worst affected by mass automation in regard to job displacement. 

McDonald’s is currently worth US$167 billion and has enjoyed a stock increase of 22 percent this year.