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After retiring its automated drive-thru assistant, McDonald’s remains bullish on AI


By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

June 18, 2024 | 4 min read

The restaurant chain is chalking its now-abandoned Automated Order Taker (AOT) system up to a learning experience in an ongoing partnership with IBM.


McDonald’s began experimenting with an automated drive-thru assistant in 2021. / Adobe Stock

Fast food giant McDonald’s is scrapping its AI-powered drive-thru tech following some public blunders.

On June 14, the industry publication Restaurant Business reported that McDonald’s would end its experimental Automated Order Taker (AOT) system. Launched in 2021 and developed in partnership with IBM, AOT was intended to speed up the ordering process for customers, who could place orders through an automated, robotic female voice. The system was also clearly a test run for replacing some human workers with AI.

As often happens with AI, however, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Some drive-thru customers soon took to social media to share their experiences with AOT, which appeared to occasionally struggle to understand order requests and exhibit other bizarre behaviors. One customer posted a video to TikTok of the system adding hundreds of dollars’ worth of chicken McNuggets to her order.

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To be fair, not all of the videos showed a clear malfunction on the part of the machine; humans can also play a role in sowing confusion. One customer, for example, filmed himself repeatedly trying to order a Mountain Dew, a Pepsi-owned product not offered by McDonald’s. He then tries to restart the order. “Dude, it’s you, not the AI,” someone commented beneath the video.

The backlash on TikTok was enough to prompt McDonald’s to pull the plug on AOT: The company will reportedly remove the technology from the more than 100 franchises where it had been deployed.

“After thoughtful review, McDonald’s has decided to end our current global partnership with IBM on AOT beyond this year,” the company told The Drum in a statement.

The company will continue, however, to experiment with AI-powered voice assistants: “As we move forward, our work with IBM has given us the confidence that a voice-ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurants’ future. We see tremendous opportunity in advancing our restaurant technology and will continue to evaluate long-term, scalable solutions that will help us make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year.”

IBM says it remains committed to partnering with McDonald’s and bringing AI-powered voice assistants to the broader fast food industry. “While McDonald’s is reevaluating and refining its plans for AOT, we look forward to continuing to work with them on a variety of other projects,” a company spokesperson told The Drum. “IBM is also now in discussions and pilots with several quick-serve restaurant clients who are interested in the AOT technology.”

McDonald’s (possibly temporary) abandonment of AOT underscores both the eagerness with which many brands have been leaning into generative AI and the technology’s many imperfections and unpredictable quirks; blending the two in the spirit of innovation can occasionally lead to backlashes.

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