McDonald's buys a tech firm that will let you order Big Macs from a voice-operated drive-thru

The machines continue to gain control of the legendary, and always busy, McDonald’s (MCD) drive-thru menu board.

McDonald’s said Tuesday it agreed to acquire early stage voiced-based tech company Apprente. No financial terms were disclosed.

Founded in 2017, the artificial intelligence upstart is backed by some of tech’s venture capital heavyweights, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman’s Greylock Partners. McDonald’s will look to preserve Apprente’s culture and encourage the development of new technologies. The company’s group of scientists will be founding members of the Silicon Valley-based McD Tech Labs.

McDonald’s says it will continue to build out McD Tech Labs’ engineer and data scientist ranks.

“Building our technology infrastructure and digital capabilities are fundamental to our Velocity Growth Plan and enable us to meet rising expectations from our customers, while making it simpler and even more enjoyable for crew members to serve guests," said McDonald’s President and CEO Steve Easterbook in a statement.

“McDonald’s commitment to innovation has long inspired our team. It was quite clear from our various engagements that McDonald’s is leading the industry with technology” said Itamar Arel, Ph.D., co-founder of Apprente and now vice president of McD Tech Labs. “Apprente was borne out of an opportunity to use technology to solve challenging real world problems and we’re thrilled to now apply this to creating personalized experiences for customers and crew.”

McDonald’s declined to make an executive available for an interview beyond the statements in the press release.

DES PLAINES, IL - OCTOBER 24:  A sign directs customers to the drive-thru at a McDonald's restaurant on October 24, 2013 in Des Plaines, Illinois. McDonald's has announced it will make changes to its low-priced Dollar Menu, which includes items like coffee, small fries, hamburgers and apple pies. The new menu, dubbed the Dollar Menu and More, will offer some higher priced options such as the grilled Onion Cheddar Burger and a McChicken sandwich.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Golden Arches said it has tested Apprente’s technology at select restaurants. How it works is as follows: you drive up to the menu board, speak to a voice-powered machine (just like ordering stuff from Amazon’s Alexa) to place an order, and drive up to the window to pick up the order.

Gone are the days of having to repeat your order five times into the drive-thru, which ultimately slows down the drive-thru lane. So, that’s a positive from a customer service and productivity standpoint.

The risks of using machines

But what could snag McDonald’s some negative headlines on this one is the potential removal of an extra crew member at the drive-thru window. After all, you will be speaking directly to a machine not a human.

It’s unclear how that dynamic will evolve over time, but with worker wages on the rise in fast food, all chains are exploring ways to reduce labor hours by using tech.

To be sure, McDonald’s is getting serious about harnessing tech to rethink its operations. McDonald’s announced in late March it acquired Dynamic Yield, its largest acquisition in 20 years. The technology creates suggested items for the drive-thru menu board based on time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic and trending orders.

McDonald’s said Tuesday the technology has quickly ramped up to 8,000 U.S. restaurants. It plans to have it available in all of its 14,000-plus U.S. restaurants and roughly 1,000 Australia stores by the end of this year.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and co-host of The First Trade at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @BrianSozzi

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