Wendy's is employing Google's AI chatbot to take your drive-thru order

 Wendy's drive through restaurant in Texas
Wendy's drive through restaurant in Texas

Welcome to Wendy’s, may AI take your order?

The fast-food burger chain has become the latest high-profile business to strike up a partnership with Google and its lofty AI ambitions.

We’ve seen AI integrating with search engines and creating apps, now Wendy’s wants to eliminate any barriers of speed and accuracy standing between you and a drive-thru order of shake and fries.

Wendy’s AI service, built using Google Cloud's AI software and dubbed "FreshAI", will start its first shift next month at one of the chain’s restaurants in Ohio.

The chatbot will be tailored to Wendy-speak, understanding for instance that a milkshake and a “Frosty” refer to the same sugary dessert. Once a customer (who won’t escape the AI’s attempts to upsell them) places their order it will appear on the screen of the line cooks in the kitchen. Once prepared, the food will be handed to customers at the pickup window by a fellow human as usual.

“It will be very conversational,” Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor told the WSJ, which first reported the news, insisting customers won’t even realise they aren’t talking to a regular employee.

Customers at a Wendy's drive-thru
Customers at a Wendy's drive-thru

Wendy’s and Google engineers worked together to adapt Google’s large language model (LLM) that recognises and mimics the way humans speak.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian said in a statement he anticipates Wendy’s move will set a new standard for drive-thrus in the fast-food industry: "Generative AI is fundamentally changing how people interact with brands, and we anticipate Wendy's integration of Google Cloud's generative AI technology will set a new standard for great drive-thru experiences for the quick-service industry."

He also told the WSJ that customers yelling orders at a drive-thru is actually one of the hardest tasks an AI can face.

"Generative AI is fundamentally changing how people interact with brands."

Wendy’s said up to 80% of its customers order from their drive-thrus. So if FreshAI is a success, it could well be implemented in more restaurants and become a central part of the Wendy's customer experience.

The challenge is a big one; Wendy’s states that billions of possible order combinations on its menus “[leave] room for miscommunication or incorrect orders”. Naturally, the company's move towards AI may fuel people’s fears over AI disrupting the current job market. However, CEO Todd Penegor says that AI is not going to replace Wendy’s workers but will instead help them do their jobs better.

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In 2022, McDonald’s first mostly automated restaurant in Texas drew the ire of activists who criticised the company for investing in an automatic restaurant rather than paying its workers a living wage.

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