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E-burger, fries and a cashless Coke

Fast food may soon get faster if McDonald's test project for drive-thru toll burgers is a success. Drive-thru e-commerce has been a fixture on pay-as-you-go roads since in-vehicle transponders debuted on a New Orleans toll road in 1989.

Fast food may soon get faster if McDonald's test project for drive-thru toll burgers is a success. Drive-thru e-commerce has been a fixture on pay-as-you-go roads since in-vehicle transponders debuted on a New Orleans toll road in 1989. The concept was simple: frequent users bypass cash collectors and have their tab recorded by radio transmission which the users pay in monthly or annual statements. Now, that concept is coming to a handful of McDonald's restaurants.

A Canadian transponder-maker has teamed up with five McDonald's restaurants in the Los Angeles-area to see if drivers show the same relish for toll burgers as they have for toll roads.

McDonald's technology research division was looking at several technologies "to partner with in the spirit of making the drive-thru experience easier and faster and more convenient for our customers," said Antonio Hernandez, communications manager for the western USA division of McDonald's Corp., where drive-thru business accounts for about 60 percent of sales.

They decided on transponders because there are about 400,000 transponder-equipped vehicles in Orange County, Calif. where the pilot project will be launched in March, explained Michael Briand, president and CEO of SIRIT Technologies Inc., the Brampton, Ontario-based transponder-maker that will supply the restaurants with receiving equipment.

Hernandez said the cashless drive-thru will save customers the 10-15 seconds it takes for the average cash transaction. Los Angeles, he added, already posts the fastest time for drive-thru consumption - an average 140 seconds between gimme and got 'em. But if transponder transactions take-off, McDonald's will be able to up its purchase processing by about 10 percent.

If the project proves a success, McDonald's - which is already looking at other cashless sales plans including debit cards, checks and McKiosks - may expand the program to other drive-thru locations. Colorado is likely to be the next McDonald's market to give it a go.

Technological hurdles
But potential expansion plans also face some technological hurdles. While transponders have been in use on toll roads and in some parking lots for years, they are limited in scope. Other than California, where a single transponder can be linked with toll agencies from San Diego to San Francisco, most are only compatible in local areas.

For McDonald's, the ideal would be a transponder capable of working at any of its drive-thru restaurants, "if the technology is there," Hernandez said, adding some day the company could market its own, McTransponder.

Once the toll burger project was set into motion, McDonald's teamed up with SIRIT Technologies Inc., the only Canadian company in the transponder business. Founded in 1993, SIRIT bought up the transponder-manufacturing division of Texas Instruments in 1997 and that became their U.S. sales division, Briand said.

The owner-operator of the southern California McDonald's drive-thrus "had seen toll transponders coming past their drive-throughs," Briand explained. When McDonald's contacted the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agency - the regional toll operators - "they put them in touch with us," he added.

Transponders and receivers
SIRIT, a $7 million company that sells about 200,000 transponders a year in the U.S., Canada, China, Chile and Panama, was picked because it manufactured transponders and could equip the restaurants with the receivers, Hernandez said.

In the world of transponders, the one for beaming burger bills comes at the low end in terms of price and performance, Briand explained. The top end models for highway fares price in at about $30 per vehicle and can pick up a billing beam at up to 100 mph. The ones now in use at some pre-pay parking lots are lower in price and don't need to worry about high-speed entry, he added.

The cost of the test, said Rose Nash, McDonald's senior director of business technology, is being shared by the fast food company and Sirit with the restaurant operators paying a per transaction fee. The companies did not disclose the total cost of installing equipment in the restaurants, though the cost of a receiver is about $3,500 a piece.

While McDonald's customers will start off using a frequency compatible with their current transponder, an eventual McDonald's model would fall between the other two designs since even fast food delivery is slow by freeway standards, "at most times," he went on.

While there is a possibility frequent-munchers at McDonald's may have to sign up for the speedier chow-down program, Hernandez hopes to arrange a deal with the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agency so commuters can pay their freeway and fries bill at the same time.