4 Ways Artificial Intelligence is Revolutionizing the Drive-thru Industry

Welcome to the drive-thru. AI will take your order now!

Even before the era of social distancing, drive-thru service was enormously popular in the United States. According to a report by QSR Magazine, most major fast-food restaurants report that drive-thru service makes up a significant 70% of their sales. When you consider that the quick service restaurant (QSR) industry in the US is worth over US$256 billion, it’s clear how essential fast and accurate service is to profitability. It’s why many fast-food restaurants are turning towards artificial intelligence to improve efficiencies and as a result, their bottom line. 

Frustration at the drive-thru

Although drive-thrus account for such a large proportion of sales, it’s an area that can cause the most frustration for customers and employees alike. 

Employees are dealing with orders from multiple lanes, processing payments, scanning loyalty cards, and packaging food. Mobile ordering apps and self-service kiosks add to the chaos and frustration. For many workers, the multitude of tasks compared to their salary level are simply not worth the stress.  

And it shows in the staff turnover numbers. The 2018 MIT Technology Review reports that the turnover rate in the fast-food industry is 150%, the highest since reporting began in 1995. 

A high staff turnover rate means restaurants are either understaffed or operating with employees who are not fully trained. This has a direct result on the performance efficiency of the fast-food restaurant. QSR Magazine reported in 2018, that the average drive through time increased from 190 seconds in 2013, to 234 seconds in 2018.

And of course, the longer the wait times, the longer queues and the more frustrated customers become. Providing a quicker and more accurate service could be the difference between a restaurant’s growth or stagnation. 

How AI can revolutionize drive-thrus

Voice-based technology that can deliver human-level customer service is destined to forever change the way drive-thrus operate. 

Powered in part by Natural Language Processing (NLP) and automated speech technology (ASR), conversational AI can recognize text and speech to mimic realistic human conversation when taking food and beverage orders. This will not only reduce service time, but also increase accuracy and boost profitability. 

Here are four ways AI will drive the next generation of drive-thrus.

Speed

If there is a long queue at a drive-thru restaurant, customers are likely to drive away. When you’re dealing in fast food, seconds matter. 

In 2018, Valyant AI piloted a voice-based assistant to take orders at a drive-thru in Colorado, which resulted in a 10 to 25% reduction in average wait time. According to an interview with CEO and founder, Rob Carpenter, some customers saw their wait time reduce by a staggering 50%.

Carpenter explained that employees were able to prepare the food while listening to the exchange between the voice assistant and customer, so that by the time the customer left the drive-thru speaker and arrived at the collection window, the employee was already waiting with their food. 

McDonald’s is also harnessing the power of AI to speed its service offering. In 2017, the fast-food giant bought Apprente, a conversation technology company that aims to speed up drive-thru order taking by understanding voice-based commands from customers. Apprente’s system uses “sound-to-meaning” which enables it to handle “complex, multilingual, multi-accents and multi-item conversational ordering.”

According to Apprente, this will result in faster order taking and will offer customers “a more consistent and pleasurable customer service experience with robotic agents never sounding tired, annoyed, unhappy or angry.”

Accuracy

Encounter AI’s Mai is a voice-enabled AI assistant that is being piloted across drive-thrus in the US. Mai can take orders (so far with an 85% accuracy rate) and can even recall previous customer orders, making ordering not only faster, but also more accurate. 

In an interview, Encounter’s CEO, Derrick Johnson, said that Mai can facilitate orders at the same efficiency rate of a human employee, but should improve dramatically with machine learning. 

“So if someone comes in and says ‘I want two bottom buns with my order’ and our system has never heard that before. We want to give it time to learn more of these edge cases,” Johnson said to Medhill Reports Chicago.

Mai struggles with accents, improper grammar, and messy language, but with more data will improve to increase her understanding. With high-quality speech data sets, machine learning engineers can train Mai to understand and provide relevant and responses. 

Profitability

AI technology can recall previous orders and remind customers of them using a voice prompt. The more orders a customer makes, the more the system will learn about their preferences and dislikes. This will allow the system to promote items which have a higher chance of being sold. 

AI can also offer personalized coupons to customers, encouraging customer to return to the restaurant with a specific order in mind.

Experience

Never grumpy, never angry, never tired. AI-powered voice assistants will provide customers with a consistently pleasurable experience, no matter how rude or short the customer is.

Sentiment analysis can also assist voice assistants to detect the emotions of customers from the tone of their voice and respond in a suitable manner. 

Smarter drive-thrus

There are many benefits to automating the ordering process of drive-thrus. AI-powered voice assistants can reduce the stress levels of employees, increase accuracy of order taking, increase the value of orders by up-selling and provide customers with a more personalized experience. Ultimately these benefits work together to drive sales and profitability. 

So, the next time you visit your favorite drive-thru restaurant, don’t be surprised to hear: “Welcome to the drive-thru. AI will now take your order”.