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Innovation

I just watched McDonald's next step into automation and why are you so mad about it?

Are there certain times when automation in fast food simply makes sense?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on
Person holding phone next to McDonald's logo
SOPA Images/Getty Images

I tried to ignore the noise.

Perhaps McDonald's had slipped this thing out just before Christmas in the hope that people would be in too good a mood to get mad.

But people always find a way to get mad. Social media encourages it. 

And when images of this appeared on social media, well, there was a reaction.

Wait, what are we talking about? McDonald's presenting a new, largely automated, drive-thru and takeaway-focused version of the restaurant in a tiny part of Texas. What? You missed it?

Tap, grab, and go

Let's take a look at it together, then. The idea is that you roll up to this fine McDonald's and have two different, highly impersonal options.

You can order in advance in the McDonald's app, drift to a separate drive-thru lane, and your order magically appears down a conveyor belt, moving right into your hungry hands.

Also: Best of CES 2023: 6 innovations that will shape the future

Alternatively, you can park, go inside, and order from a touchscreen -- something millions of people are already familiar with.

Somehow, this new, slightly smaller McDonald's concept received quite a bit of opprobrium. About the minimum wage in Texas, for example, as per a tweet by Nina Turner.

One can understand the concern, even if this isn't the first step McDonald's has taken toward humanless service.

Oddly enough, though, the company's CEO, Chris Kempczinski, freely admits that automation is expensive. He insists that McDonald's has to become a better employer in order to entice people to work for not so much money. 

Those aren't his literal words, you understand. He really said: "The economics don't pencil out, you don't necessarily have the footprint, and there's a lot of infrastructure investments that you need to do around your utility, around your HVAC systems. You're not going to see that as a broad-based solution anytime soon."

And yes, he did add: "We've got to kind of get after this the old-fashioned way, which is just making sure we're a great employer and offering our crew a great experience when they come into the restaurants."

Don't mess with automated Texas

So let's talk about that experience with respect to this not-fully automated experiment in Texas.

Keith Vanecek, the franchisee whose restaurant is presenting this new-fangled alternative, explained: "The technology in this restaurant not only allows us to serve our customers in new, innovative ways, it gives our restaurant team the ability to concentrate more on order speed and accuracy, which makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone."

Somehow, though, this still incited ire.

Sample: "Oh no, first we have to talk with Siri and Google [and] now we have to talk to another computer." Another sample: "And if they forget an item. Who you supposed to tell, the robot? It defeats the purpose of using the drive-thru if you have to go inside for it."

There are, to be sure, human employees inside this restaurant, but they're largely focused on making your actual food.

I feel sure that customers will warm to this slightly more than they warm to a robot taking their order at the drive-thru.

And I did enjoy one commenter's positive thought: "This is kinda cool. No one to judge my order."

You see, humans have all sorts of impulses that you may not have considered.

Automation for the nation?

Nerds, too, had positive as well as negative thoughts about this. On Slashdot, for example, some observed that this was all inevitable and provided simple efficiency.

One Slashdotter observed: "I found the automatic ordering kiosks helpful (this was a good 15 years ago when Burger King was trying them out). It was much easier to put in special orders, get the exact items and condiments you wanted correct. Used properly, that leaves the counter clerks more time to deal with incorrect orders, forgotten items,  and other things the automation has a hard time dealing with."

Sadly, they then added: "But of course, MBAs being MBAs, they'll use the automation as a replacement for employees and we'll be left with the worst possible outcome."

I want to end on a positive note, of course. I mean, for once.

For me, the highlight of this little concept lies inside this McDonald's. It's a sign that reads: "Happiness Fits In A Bag."

Now doesn't that make you feel good?

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