Will a bot soon be taking your order at the drive-thru?

Discussion
Source: Clinc
Sep 06, 2018
Matthew Stern

When you visit the quick-serve drive-thru, the voice taking your order might not be human — if one new startup is successful.

Clinc, a company based in Ann Arbor, MI, shared a demo of its new artificial intelligence (AI) voice assistant for drive-thru windows with TechCrunch. Customers are addressed by a robot voice and reply using their natural, conversational speech patterns. The system accepts and interprets unstructured voice input, so it does not require a person who is ordering to go through a menu tree.

Clinc’s solution comes at a time when technological innovations are shaking up many of the mainstay positions of fast food employment.

McDonald’s, for instance, began rolling out self-serve kiosk-based ordering globally in 2014 and began implementing the kiosks in U.S. locations in 2016. In June, the chain announced that it planned to increase the rollout to 1,000 stores every quarter for the next eight to nine quarters, until the entire chain has automated ordering.

Such automation has been controversial as it removes the need to employ people to take orders, though advocates point to automated ordering opening up more productive positions. In fact, the franchise owner of the new Chicago flagship stated in a Bloomberg article that, since the introduction of kiosks, the location now employs more people (though McDonald’s declined to say how many).

In the past few years, other startups have been working on solutions to automate the backend of the QSR experience. Earlier this year, Bay Area startup Creator launched its AI-enabled, fully-automated burger restaurant. Before that, the chain Caliburger announced plans to implement Flippy, an automated burger flipper, in 10 of its locations.   

But quick-serve drive-thrus have their own unique set of problems with slowdowns and bottlenecks that an automated chatbot may or may not successfully address.

For example, a few years ago, Starbucks became a victim of its own success when the introduction of mobile app pre-ordering led to long lines for pickup both at drive-thrus and inside stores.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should QSRs be thinking seriously about automating the drive-thru experience with voice assistant technology? What do you see as the pros and cons?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"If the simple task of ordering can be handled efficiently by bots, it would free up time for human employees to positively interact with customers."
"Regarding job elimination: I am not convinced that in the long run, net jobs will be preserved. "
"We’re on the verge of having to have a national discussion about what happens when technology takes over the jobs of fast-food workers, long-haul truckers, and others."

Join the Discussion!

23 Comments on "Will a bot soon be taking your order at the drive-thru?"


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Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

As for jobs, technology is marching forward in every sector and job patterns will shift with it. There is nothing more mechanical than fast food drive-thru. QSR is an obvious place to employ technology and bots. The question is whether I will be better able to understand what the bot says through the horrible speakers.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Right you are! Often it’s not the concept that has the problem, it is the quality of the delivery of the concept. Bad speakers? Bad experience!

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Innovation is relentless. A lot of these technologies are inevitable, it’s just a question of when they become commercially viable. Voice bots will need to dramatically improve to work with the customizations, background noise and poor speakers at drive-thrus. When they do, it’s just a matter of time until we’re speaking with them everywhere.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
I am sure that anyone can recall at least one time they would have preferred an automated order taker at the drive-thru window when dealing with a person who did not understand his or her meal request and they found themselves repeating it several times. The problem here is the focus. We always try to find ways of eliminating the lowest paid people without realizing the contribution they make to the overall customer experience. In-store kiosks are one thing for ordering provided the customer has a choice of whether or not to use them, but I can think of several problems when forced to use an automated order taker at the drive-thru such as: What if I have a question? What about suggestive selling? Moreover, most importantly, how is a computer voice going to be friendly and engaging? Lastly are the continued issues of computers not understanding the human. We all experience that every day when dealing with automated phone systems that either transfer us incorrectly, can’t answer a question or disconnect us. It’s frustrating,… Read more »
Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Voice assistant technology has come a long way! QSRs should definitely be investigating and experimenting with this technology. Integrating voice assistant and mobile technology into the drive-thru experience is far more viable than digital menu boards at the drive-thru. The challenge is with what you’ll get from time to time. We’ve all had those Siri /Alexa moments. “I’d like a Coke and fries” ” … We don’t serve cocaine.” You get it.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

It is all within the realm of possibility. The technology has to be very crisp and the decision tree has to account for all the what ifs likely to take place when the customer is stuck in the car and the cook is stuck in the kitchen, if there is no one in between the two.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

So long as it works properly, this seems like a sensible solution. As a customer, I want speed and efficiency when ordering at the drive-thru. I don’t much care whether the order is taken by a robot or a human. The downside, of course, is the potential loss of jobs.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I never want to see a human being lose his job to any form of AI, but maybe in this case the bag I am handed at a QSR will contain what I actually ordered.

I’m kidding. Kind of. But if the simple task of ordering can be handled efficiently by bots, it would free up time for human employees to positively interact with customers.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

I’m with you on this one. The only thing I would add is, so long as they upgrade the speaker while they’re at it. Because even a bot will sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher if the speaker isn’t loud and clear.

All around, just a general case of companies not thinking through the full ROI of investments – drive-thru is a huge part of QSR business, so how much more could it deliver if restaurants invested just a little more into training and speakers? But instead, we get bots…

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

If you want a laugh, Google “Fast Food Drive Thru by Stevens and Grdnic”!

Scott Norris
Guest

Starbucks has been installing some very impressive high-def speakers at their drive-throughs — I honestly thought someone was in the car with me the first time I rolled up to one of them!

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I can’t imagine a bot doing a worse job than the human beings I have encountered in the drive-thru.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

As technology evolves, so will jobs. Yes, bots are replacing humans in tasks such as this, however even more opportunities are opening for humans as AI technologies create more challenges that only humans can address. AI will create 500,000 more jobs in the U.S. than it replaces over the next few years.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I’ll be the voice of dissent here. We’re on the verge of having to have a national discussion about what happens when technology takes over the jobs of fast-food workers, long-haul truckers, and others. What will society do for the people displaced by this?

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This is always a concern but history will show us that while automation eliminates jobs, it also creates more jobs. Some lose, some gain but net/net it is more. There are many things to do. A little education can go a long way. There is an assumption that these people can’t do anything else. I disagree.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

I like it. I think this is a great use of the technology. Although I haven’t ordered fast food via a drive through in something like 25 years, the ordering experience, although improved, isn’t stellar. It’s nice to be greeted at the pick-up window with a smiling happy person, but the squawk box end of it has never been good, so the bar isn’t too high for bots to meet and beat.

Bots or artificial assistants do much better with limited data sets. A fast food menu is limited, even with potential variants like “hold the pickles, hold the lettuce,” so interpreting customer needs will potentially be very effective.

Regarding job elimination: I am not convinced that in the long run, net jobs will be preserved. As I’ve stated before, it’s an issue society is going to have to deal with from the education system on up.

Laura Davis-Taylor
BrainTrust

My first reaction is no problem, but PLEASE divert some of the labor cost savings to pay higher hourly wages to the those that hand off the food — and ensure that they are friendly, authentic and smiling.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

My concern is the same as with any new technology: it’s great when it works, but when it doesn’t, everything stops (frequently this is overcome by — initially at least — redundancy in having a person[s] as backup … which may explain the curious claim of a McD’s that “[now] employs more people.”)

My other concern is a certain lack of transparency — some might say dishonesty — in what this whole process seeks to achieve: “opening up more productive positions”? Come on folks, that might make sense in a factory, where the whole world can serve as a market for expanded production, but in the limited world of the neighborhood drive thru, it’s going to mean one (or more) less person behind the window.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

This is something that hopefully will work, as the human transactions can be a hit or miss, on what they actually give you. Now if they can get the folks to pay attention better to your order, we all win.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

If you’ve read the comments, the concepts on automation have already been well discussed. QSRs need to think about it (and other tech), and the pros will not only outweigh the cons, customer expectations will “eventually” change as the tech matures. I will mention the speakers, however. Tech is changing faster than we think and the best solutions won’t stop at just an AI based order taker. I wouldn’t be surprised if new tech is introduced that would route the communication through bluetooth to your phone or car system instead. There might even be advances where as you’re driving, you ask your phone or car app for a burger — and the car will place your order, and then drive you up to the pickup window with your order ready and waiting.

David Naumann
BrainTrust
David Naumann
Vice President, Retail Marketing, enVista
1 year 14 days ago

The accuracy of voice-assisted ordering technology has gotten much better, and it is probably just as accurate or more than a low paid QSR employee. Consumers are getting used to talking to bots as request for informant on phones and smart speakers and some are even ordering products via voice assistants. The pros for restaurants are less scheduling issues and reduced labor costs and, hopefully, increased order accuracy.

The con is when the bot makes a mistake, consumers may not be as tolerant and become frustrated with the experience. If it happens once, they may forgive, but if it happens again, they may choose a different restaurant option in the future.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

The bridge between self-serve kiosks using current technology and shifting these to AI based kiosks is very small, and we already have voice-based AI from many companies (Alexa, Siri, Samsung, etc.) that is very successful, accurate and strong. Tie this to a visual confirmation of the order complete with a verbal dictation of the order back to the customer and you have a bot who can take your order, rapidly, accurately and using existing hardware with just a simple software upgrade — this is right around the corner.

Susan Viamari
BrainTrust

As a con, I imagine most people might get much more frustrated at a bot not understanding your request than they would if a person misunderstood it. If it were a widespread problem, your brand could suffer – I can just picture the social media jokes now. Although the tarnish could be only temporary if the technology is finessed.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"If the simple task of ordering can be handled efficiently by bots, it would free up time for human employees to positively interact with customers."
"Regarding job elimination: I am not convinced that in the long run, net jobs will be preserved. "
"We’re on the verge of having to have a national discussion about what happens when technology takes over the jobs of fast-food workers, long-haul truckers, and others."

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