Wendy's Using AI to Take Drive-Thru Orders Among Latest Fast-Food Innovations

Don't expect to speak to human beings when placing orders at fast-food restaurants much longer

Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"Would you like fries with that?" the artificial intelligence asked the customer at the Wendy's drive-thru.

Yes, placing orders at the popular fast-food chain soon could be a fully-automated experience as Wendy's expands its partnership with Google Cloud to introduce technology that will take customer's drive-thru orders.  

That means speaking to a human being through a two-way speaker soon could become antiquated as drive-thrus continue to evolve with mobile orders and AI.   

The pilot launch of "Wendy's FreshAI" will begin in June at a company-operated location in Ohio, the company announced in a statement. It will use Google Cloud's generative AI and large language models technology to enable drive-thru conversations with customers, even if orders include special requests like no cheese or extra sauce.

According to Wendy’s, Google's large language models "have the data from Wendy's menu, established business rules and logic for conversation guardrails, and integration with restaurant hardware and the Point of Sale system."

So, if you ask for no pickles but find some wedged in your burger, blame the AI, not the person wearing the Wendy's uniform.

"Google Cloud's generative AI technology creates a huge opportunity for us to deliver a truly differentiated, faster and frictionless experience for our customers, and allows our employees to continue focusing on making great food and building relationships with fans that keep them coming back time and again," Todd Penegor, president and CEO of Wendy's, said in a statement.

Wendy's AI drive-thru is among the latest fast-food technological initiatives.

Automation is taking over more than just the drive-thru at McDonald's.

The fast-food leader is piloting a near fully-automated restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, designed primarily for customers on the go, according to CNN. The small-format restaurant includes a drive-thru where customers place the order on the McDonald's app, pull through the pick-up lane and receive their food from a conveyor belt.

Remember having to hover your credit card over the pin pad to pay for meals? That's so 2022! All you need at Panera Bread is the palm of your hand. 

The bakery-cafe chain is testing Amazon's palm-scanning technology "Amazon One" that allows customers to pay simply by placing their hand over the palm scanner at the register. Customers first must link their loyalty program accounts to Amazon One and enable loyalty identification and payment. 

“We think the payment plus loyalty identification is the secret sauce that can unlock a really personalized, warm and efficient experience for our guests in our cafes,” Panera Chief Digital Officer George Hanson told CNBC.

Those long, late-night waits on the drive-thru line at Taco Bell could be coming to an end. The chain made a two-minute or less drive-thru promise before launching "Taco Bell Defy" in Minnesota last June to expedite service.

The initiative includes a two-story, four-lane drive-thru, three of which are dedicated to mobile or delivery order pickups. Customers scan in their order with a QR code and the contactless delivery is completed by a lift system from the elevated kitchen, with customers capable of interacting with staff through two-way audio and video technology.

CKE Restaurants Holdings, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, also recently announced that it began implementing AI at select drive-thrus. The technology, the company said in a press release, positively impacted drive-thru times and order accuracy.

While AI might help customers get their fries a little quicker, the obvious concern it that it also could cost employees their jobs. Some chains introducing the technology have publicly stated the transition to AI is to expedite service, a part of which includes shifting employees to other areas of need. 

"Wendy's seeks to take the complexity out of the ordering process so employees can focus on serving up fast, fresh-made, quality food and exceptional service," the company's press release read.

Technological advances, however, will lead to continued fast-food innovation in the kitchen and at the drive-thru window, whether via cooking automation, drone delivery or self-driving cars...or flying cars.

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