McDonald’s scraps drive-through AI after customer gets bacon ice cream

McDonald's
McDonald's

McDonald’s is scrapping artificial intelligence from its drive-throughs after customers’ orders were wildly misinterpreted.

The fast food chain has been trialling the voice recognition software since 2019 with numerous examples of the technology failing to record orders correctly.

Reports of one person being given a bacon-topped ice cream and system malfunctions that saw hundreds of dollars worth of nuggets being automatically added to an order have spawned a series of mocking videos.

In one posted on TikTok, a woman attempts to order caramel ice cream but instead gets multiple portions of butter added to her bill.

In another, hundreds of dollars worth of chicken nuggets is automatically added to a bill as two young women laugh and shout “stop”.

“The McDonald’s robot is wild,” one of the women wrote online.

Now McDonald’s has told franchises that the technology would be removed from more than 100 US restaurants by the end of July.

In announcing its decision on Monday, McDonald’s did not offer a reason for ending its test run but added that it was not the end of such systems from its outlets.

“Our work with IBM has given us the confidence that a voice ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurants’ future,” a spokesperson said, adding that it would continue evaluations to “make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year.”

Unnamed sources familiar with the technology told CNBC that the system had trouble understanding some people’s accents, and was unable to distinguish the consumer’s voice from background noise. Industry analysts have previously alleged that franchisees found the technology “underwhelming”.

IBM, which developed the technology used at the drive-throughs, said it would continue to work with McDonalds in the future.

“This technology is proven to have some of the most comprehensive capabilities in the industry, fast and accurate in some of the most demanding conditions,” it said in a statement.

“While McDonald’s is re-evaluating and refining its plans for AOT [Automated Order Taking], we look forward to continuing to work with them on a variety of other projects.”

McDonald’s said that it still plans to use many of IBM’s products across its global system.

A number of fast food chains have begun exploring the implementation of AI across operations in recent years – particularly since the pandemic – with many pointing to possibilities of maximising speed and cutting costs.

When California passed a new mandatory minimum wage law for fast-food workers in April to $20 an hour, restaurants quickly began laying off staff and turning to technology, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Other fast food chains, including Wendy’s, Dunkin, and Hardee’s, are all currently testing or using AI in their drive-throughs.

Meanwhile, Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, announced this year that it was introducing an “AI-first mentality” in its fast-food restaurants. “If you think about the major journeys within a restaurant that can be AI-powered, we believe it’s endless,” said Joe Park, Yum Brand’s chief digital and technology officer.

Popeyes UK also launched its first AI-powered drive-through last month, after the company said a pilot programme reported 97 per cent accuracy.

Economists have forecast that millions of fast food jobs will be lost in the coming five years as smart kiosks replace humans and implement AI systems.

Meanwhile, some automated systems have come under scrutiny for relying on outsourcing workers from countries with cheap labour to make them work.