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McDonald’s pulls AI ordering from drive-thrus — for now

CNN  —  McDonald’s is pulling the plug on an AI-powered voice-automated ordering technology it was testing at more than 100 restaurant drive-thru systems in the US, causing a hiccup in the rapid rollout of AI in the fast food industry. The company had worked with IBM on a global partnership to develop and test AI-driven ordering technology at some of its restaurants. The fast food giant says it’s still working on AI-related solutions at a time when its rivals are also investing in AI. The move also raises questions if the two-year-old project with IBM was already out of date at a time when large tech companies are making rapid improvements to AI technology. It plans to shut off the technology in restaurants participating in the test “no later than July 26, 2024,” according to reporting from trade publication Restaurant Business. “IBM remains a trusted partner and we will still utilize many of their products across our global System,” McDonald’s said in an email sent to franchisees and shared with CNN. But the company suggested it will look at AI partners other than IBM. A driver in a vehicle places his order from a drive-thru lane at a Wendy's fast food restaurant in Alhambra, California on May 5, 2020. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images Related article These popular fast food drive-thrus are getting faster McDonald’s and IBM launched their partnership in 2021, announcing the development of Automated Order Taking (AOT) technology to create a more convenient and simplified ordering experience for its customers and restaurant teams as a part of its “Accelerating the Arches” growth plan. IBM said the AOT technology that emerged from the partnership has “some of the most comprehensive capabilities in the industry, fast and accurate” in demanding conditions. “While McDonald’s is revaluating and refining its plans for AOT, we look forward to continuing to work with them on a variety of other projects,” IBM said in a statement. McDonald’s says this is not the end of its AI efforts. It plans to “evaluate long-term, scalable solutions” that can lead to a future voice-ordering solution by the end of 2024. McDonald’s is not the only fast-food chain experimenting with AI. Other companies like White Castle tested out an automated drive-thru ordering system in 2021, and Wendy’s expanded its partnership with Google Cloud to roll out its own AI ordering tool in May last year. Despite fast-food companies’ enthusiasm to integrate AI-powered solutions into their daily operations, the technology still hits snags. Some customers have complained about AI getting their orders wrong — a result of the technology’s inability to recognize some accents and distinguish the customer’s voice from background noise. CNN’s Rachel Metz and Danielle Wiener-Bronner contributed to this report.