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At least two major chains are already trialing voice recognition in the drive-thru lane.

By Mike Pomranz
March 02, 2021
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We talk to automated voices more than we may want to admit—whether it's telling our bank how to direct our call or asking Alexa to give us the weather forecast. So though we're used to talking to real people on the other end of a drive-thru speaker, is accepting our fast food order really something we don't think a computer can handle? In a handful of locations, customers are finding out.

Automated ordering is already being used by at least two major fast food chains—McDonald's and White Castle—according to a recent CNN Business report. MickeyD's said they have been trialing their system at a few restaurants in the Chicago area, and White Castle said they've been testing ordering through an AI voice system at a location in Merrillville, Indiana, since November.

Drive Thru Signage With an Arrow
Credit: Kelly Johnson/Getty Images

Talking to a computerized voice may feel weird—no matter how pleasant it's programmed to sound—but Lucy Brady, McDonald's chief digital customer engagement officer, made the argument to CNN that speaking with a computer may actually be better than talking to a real person. "Humans sometimes forget to greet people, they forget, they make mistakes, they don't hear as well," she was quoted as saying. "A machine can actually have a consistent greeting and remain calm under pressure."

And unlike human employees—who would struggle to remember every car that comes through the drive-thru lane even if they wanted to—a computer can gladly accept this abundance of data. Jamie Richardson, White Castle's vice president of marketing and public relations, told CNN his chain was looking to add an opt-in license plate recognition feature for regular customers. "The thought is to make sure that it's friendly. 'They remember me, they know who I am,'" he stated. (That is, if your idea of "friendly" is a computer programmed to be your friend.)

All of these features have been in the works for some time—for instance, I covered license plate recognition back in 2019—but as the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of the drive-thru, the need to improve this convenient takeout service has also ramped up. "Technology is changing the experience," Lisa van Kesteren, founder and CEO of SeeLevel HX, which conducts an annual study of drive-thru speeds at major chains, told the news network, "and I think it got thrust into hyper-overdrive by the pandemic."