I Went to Carl’s Jr.’s AI Drive-Thru and All I Got Was Sad

Fast food chains are experimenting with having AI assistants take orders. The results aren’t particularly satisfying.

A delicious Carl's Jr. burger with a beef patty, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and ketchup.
Getty Images / Carl's Jr.

Rolling up to the Carl’s Jr. a few blocks from my house, I was greeted with a line for the drive-thru. There’s a certain culture that forms only when a drive-thru is taking particularly long. Fast food veterans, people who are high, and your quarterly french fry enjoyers direct their confusion and anger at the same person holding everyone else up. It forms a fleeting, but nonetheless enjoyable camaraderie.

Seeing a line during this was an extra ominous portent because I hadn’t just come to satisfy my hunger for Famous Stars. I wanted to order with Carl’s Jr.’s new AI, and the person waiting at the intercom was seemingly sitting in silence, waiting for a robot to respond with their total.

Presto Automation announced a partnership with CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, to automate drive-thru ordering in dozens of locations across the U.S. in September 2023. It’s one of two AI deals CKE Restaurants signed, the other is with OpenCity which runs an AI assistant called Tori. The goal is to provide faster wait times for customers and make the day-to-day work of running the drive-thru less stressful for workers. Look at Presto’s website, though, and another key benefit seems to be consistently upselling customers on other products, something that’s often awkward for retail employees to do, speaking from experience.

Whatever the actual reason for an AI drive-thru, when I was finally able to make it to the intercom to order, I found the experience thoroughly underwhelming, and I’m not sure if people ordering are who this change actually benefits.

Ordering With a Robot

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

Video by Ian Carlos Campbell

The first interesting thing I noticed occurred right before I ordered when I heard the intercom’s robotic voice tell the driver in front of me that they could use their coupon at the next window. “The AI is aware of coupons, that’s curious,” I thought. It’s perhaps unfair to call Carl's Jr.’s AI robotic. It sounds person-adjacent, maybe a sidestep away from what you’d get out of a modern smart speaker, but not convincingly human.

But that didn’t really matter. Ordering was easy. I was immediately upsold on trying some new signature sandwich, to which I responded “no” and continued with my own order. The AI was able to handle common requests, like leaving onions off my burger, and substitutions without any issues. While I attempted to trip up the machine, my order was updated on a large screen centered below the menu. There was a slight delay each time the AI had to change things, sure, but it didn’t take longer than a few seconds. Even still, when a fast food employee pauses, there’s at least some feedback. Maybe I hear them entering an order, or maybe their microphone picks up the kitchen behind them, or maybe they even make a noise as they’re thinking. In contrast, Carl’s Jr.’s AI is silent when it’s making changes, creating awkward pauses that would probably feel more acceptable if I knew for sure I was dealing with another person. Instead, I was upsold again on a slice of chocolate cake.

Once everything was ordered, I was told how much I had to pay and drove to the next window, where a living and breathing person confirmed my order and took my card so I could pay. They didn’t seem noticeably less stressed or in a hurry than any other fast food worker I've talked to, and if anything, they seemed concerned at how many times I changed my order trying to fool the AI. Maybe there was some kind of hidden benefit 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 made the process feel different, they looked at me confused that I’d asked, grimaced, and then said they’d prefer not to share. With a line behind me, I wasn’t going to force the issue.

Who Wants AI at a Drive-Thru?

Was this overall experience better than talking to a human being? No, not exactly. Even though I went to Carl’s Jr. to try and break Presto or OpenCity’s AIs (I’m fairly certain I dealt with Presto’s, but I’m not sure), I was still worried I might confuse the system. My ordering style was likely more formal than the typical late-night Carl's Jr. exchange. And because of those slightly awkward pauses, it felt a bit slower, even if the whole experience took 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” was that took my order. Bloomberg reported last year that some 70 percent of Presto Automation interactions are handled on some level with outsourced labor. And now Presto Automation highlights human participation as a feature, rather than something that invalidates the company’s AI claims. Presto Automation CEO Xavier Casanova even told investors last year that “human agents will always play a role in ensuring order accuracy.” At the very least, the worker who took my payment was overseeing what the AI was adding to my check and confirmed with me that everything was correct and error-free.

Interactions at a fast food chain don’t have the depth of ordering with a waiter at a sit-down establishment. There’s less time to impress, and I’m also not sure if anyone on either side of the counter or register is really there to have a social experience. Really, the doom and gloom I felt after this AI drive-thru interaction came less from the idea that someone’s job was being eliminated. Instead, it was more about how this customer-facing AI change had little to do with actually making the experience of ordering food better.

Mask Off

Fast food didn’t need even less of a human touch.

SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

You won’t get a worse experience ordering through an AI, but it’s clearly more about what extra money the restaurant can squeeze out of each order by upselling and speeding up orders than it is about improving how ordering feels for chicken nugget lovers. If even one person adds on that chocolate cake, it’s a win. If they can trim 30 seconds off each order across hundreds of orders a day, fast food spots are potentially accepting that many more orders. This is an innovation that’s for business owners, and business owners alone, and it doesn’t particularly hide that fact.

...this was never about burgers in the first place.

What is sad about the AI drive-thru is that, much like how the concept of video streaming services is being deprecated to make a few bucks, something that already felt mechanical can in fact be made even more mechanical. At this point, AI isn’t necessarily eliminating any jobs, but companies do believe it could make employees more efficient, which could translate to gains over time. And fewer and fewer companies are afraid of showing that making money is all they really care about. If there’s an impact the nebulous concept of AI has while we figure out what it’s really for, it’s that. AI doesn’t make the process of ordering a burger better, but it does make it abundantly clear that this was never about burgers in the first place.

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