Is New Technology Making The Drive-Thru Better Or Worse?

A new fast food report looks at what AI is doing to the drive-thru customer’s experience.

From robotic delivery to AI-assisted ordering in the drive-thru lane, fast food chains have found numerous ways to embrace emerging technology. In the past few years, some have even tested full restaurant builds focused primarily on pickup and delivery, with advanced tech driving the experience. But have any of these newfangled methods actually improved the overall customer experience?

Industry publication QSR Magazine, in partnership with the software company InTouch Insights, has released its 2023 Drive-Thru Report, and a new category of the annual report focuses exclusively on "Innovation Locations." This category includes the drive-thru-laden Taco Bell Defy in Minnesota, McDonald's small-format location in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Chick-fil-A location in Georgia using robotic delivery.

Fast food’s newest drive-thru lanes, explained

Taco Bell's 3,000-square-foot Defy location, first opened in 2022, features two stories and four drive-thru lanes, three of which are dedicated to mobile and delivery order pickup—that is, you can't place an order there. The aim of this particular location is to "defy norms and define the future" by getting customers through the drive-thru in two minutes or less.


In a similar vein, McDonald's small-format restaurant has its sights set on speed, aka fulfilling a customer's order as fast as possible. McDonald's experimental location in Fort Worth specializes in takeout, delivery, and drive-thru only. There is no dine-in space at this location, and food is delivered to customers via conveyor belt.

The fast food chains with the fastest drive-thru

To evaluate not only the speed but also the accuracy of these "Innovation Locations," QSR and InTouch went through the drive-thru lanes of the respective restaurants 25 times each. During these tests, the average wait time (from arrival to ordering), average service time (from order placed to order received), and average total time were determined, and testers clocked the user experience of new drive-thru lane technologies and the accuracy of the orders.


Of the three innovation locations tested, Taco Bell's Defy had the lowest average wait time (24.24 seconds), service time (151.96 seconds), and total time (176.20 seconds). However, the Defy location achieved only 88% accuracy, putting it behind Chick-fil-A's robotic delivery location, which had 92% accuracy.

Despite Taco Bell's second-place standing in accuracy, QSR noted that compared to the average Taco Bell location, Defy blew its siblings out of the water with its speed. General Taco Bell locations had a 73.49-second average wait time and a 205.35-second average service time, for a 278.84-second total. Similarly, McDonald's and Chick-fil-A's innovative locations beat out their regular counterparts in all three categories of speed, per the report.


The most accurate fast food chains

Speed, however, is nothing without accuracy. Chick-fil-A's robotic delivery location managed to match the accuracy of its regular locations with 92%, and Taco Bell's Defy restaurant actually beat out its regular locations when it came to accuracy by achieving 88% compared to the typical 85% (not a huge gain, but something). The unfortunate underachiever here was McDonald's, whose high-tech location in Fort Worth had only 80% accuracy compared to the 88% accuracy of its other locations.


"Despite being the most ambitious concept in Taco Bell's history, the company is taking Taco Bell Defy's learnings and exploring how we can integrate the successes into future builds," said Matt Shaw, Taco Bell's chief development officer, to QSR Magazine. "The restaurant was an industry-wide lesson to embrace the digital age and, at Taco Bell, we see this technology as a tool to interact with our fans."

So, while customers seem to be waiting less in the drive-thru line at these technology-forward locations, there are still plenty of tweaks to be made before they seem like a surefire way to improve business.