I went to Carl’s Jr.’s AI Drive and what I found was sad.

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On my way to a Carl’s Jr. a few blocks from my house, I was greeted by a drive-thru. There’s a certain culture that only happens when the drive-thru is taking a particularly long time. Fast food veterans, upstarts, and your quarterly French fry relishers tend to take their confusion and anger out on the very person holding everyone else down. It makes for a fleeting, but nonetheless pleasant friendship.

Seeing a line during this time was an added inconvenience because I didn’t just come to satisfy my appetite for famous stars. I wanted to place an order with Carl’s Jr.’s new AI, and the man waiting on the intercom sat apparently silent, waiting for a robot to respond with his total.

Presto Automation announced in September 2023 a partnership with CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, to automate drive-thru ordering at dozens of locations across the United States. This is one of two AI deals CKE Restaurants has signed, the other being next door. OpenCity runs an AI assistant called Tori. The goal is to provide faster wait times for customers and make the day-to-day task of operating a drive-thru less stressful for workers. Check out Presto’s website, though, and another key benefit is constantly upselling customers on other products, something that, speaking from experience, seems to be often awkward for retail employees to do.

Whatever the real reason for the AI ​​drive-thru, when I finally managed to make it to the intercom to order, I found the experience completely unpleasant, and I’m not sure if there are people ordering. Take advantage of this change.

Ordering with a robot

Ordering with AI is easy, save for some awkward pauses.

Video by Ian Carlos Campbell

The first interesting thing I noticed was before I placed my order when I heard the robotic voice of the intercom telling the driver in front of me that they could use their coupon at the next window. I thought, “AI knows coupons, that’s interesting.” It’s probably unfair to call Carl Jr.’s AI robotic. It seems human-adjacent, maybe a step away from what you’d get from a modern smart speaker, but certainly not human.

But it didn’t really matter. Ordering was easy. I was immediately sold on trying some of the new signature sandwiches, to which I replied “no” and continued with my order. The AI ​​was able to handle common requests, like leaving the onion off my burger, and substitutions without issue. When I tried to trip the machine, my order was updated on a large screen in the center below the menu. There was a slight delay every time the AI ​​had to change things, of course, but it didn’t take more than a few seconds. Still, when a fast food employee stops by, there is at least some feedback. Maybe I hear them entering the order, or maybe their microphone picks up the kitchen behind them, or maybe they’re making noises like they’re thinking. By contrast, Carl’s Jr.’s AI is silent when it’s making changes, creating awkward pauses that might feel more acceptable if I knew for sure I was dealing with another person. doing Instead, I was sold again on a piece of chocolate cake.

Once everything was ordered, I was told how much I had to pay and proceeded to the next window, where a living and breathing person confirmed my order and took my card so I could pay. can do He didn’t seem significantly less stressed or rushed than any other fast-food worker I’ve talked to, and if anything, he seemed concerned that I’d let the AI ​​down. How many times have you changed your order trying to make a fool of yourself? Perhaps there was some hidden advantage I was missing from my privileged view in the driver’s seat. When I asked the worker who took my card if the automated system felt the process was different, he looked at me confused as I asked, smiled, and then said he’d prefer not to share. . With a line behind me, I wasn’t going to force the issue.

Who wants AI at the drive-thru?

Was the overall experience better than talking to a human? No, not at all. Although I’d go to Carl’s Jr. to try and break Presto or OpenCity’s AIs. (I’m pretty sure I’ve dealt with Presto’s, but I’m not sure), I was still worried I might confuse the system. My ordering style was more formal than a typical late-night Carl’s Jr. exchange. And because of those slightly awkward pauses, it felt a bit slow, even if the whole experience took about the same amount of time. And there was still something sad about the whole thing.

For one, it’s not clear how “artificial” the “intelligence” that took my command was. Bloomberg It was reported last year that nearly 70 percent of Presto Automation’s interactions are handled with some level of outsourced labor. And now Presto Automation highlights human participation as a feature, rather than invalidating the company’s AI claims. “Human agents will always play a role in ensuring order accuracy,” Presto Automation CEO Xavier Casanova told investors last year. At least, the worker taking my payment was monitoring what the AI ​​was adding to my check and confirmed with me that everything was correct and error-free.

Fast food chain interactions lack the depth of ordering with a waiter in a sit-down establishment. There’s less time to impress, and I’m not even sure anyone on either side of the counter or register is really there to have a social experience. Indeed, the doom and gloom I felt after this AI-driven interaction was dwarfed by the thought of someone getting fired. Instead, it was more about how this customer-facing AI change had little to do with actually improving the experience of ordering food.

Mask off

Fast food didn’t even need the human touch.

Sopa Images/Light Rocket/Getty Images

You won’t have a bad experience ordering through AI, but it’s clearly more about how much extra money a restaurant can squeeze out of each order by upselling and speeding up orders, than How it feels to order for chicken nugget lovers. If even one person adds to this chocolate cake, it’s a win. If they can offer 30 seconds off each order for hundreds of orders a day, fast food spots are likely accepting many more orders. It’s an innovation for business owners and business owners only, and it doesn’t particularly hide that fact.

…It was never about the burger before.

The sad thing about the AI ​​drive-thru is that, just as the concept of video streaming services is being scrapped to make a few bucks, something that already felt mechanical can actually be made even more mechanical. Is. At the moment, AI isn’t necessarily eliminating any jobs, but companies believe it could make employees more efficient, which could translate into benefits over time. And fewer and fewer companies are afraid to show that making money is all they really care about. If the ridiculous concept of AI has any impact while we understand what it’s really for, then that’s it. AI doesn’t make the burger-ordering process better, but it makes it abundantly clear that it was never about the burger in the first place.

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