Google is helping Wendy’s build an AI drive-thru

The tech will be put to a real world test next month.
Wendy's chain restaurant at night.
Wendy's wants to automate its drive-thru. Batu Gezer / Unsplash

Wendy’s is working with Google to create an AI chatbot that will be able to take customer orders at its drive-thrus. According to a press release from both companies, the AI—called Wendy’s FreshAI—is set to debut at a chain restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, in June.

Although the AI is being billed as a chatbot, it’s safe to assume it will work a little differently to ChatGPT or Bing AI. From a report in The Wall Street Journal, it seems that the customers will be able to speak to the AI but will receive a reply in the form of on-screen text. Once a customer places their order, it will be sent to a screen for the line cooks. When the meal is ready, the customer will then drive forward and collect it. This is one of the first instances we’ve seen where a chatbot is being taken out into the real world—and it sounds like it could work. 

Wendy’s FreshAI is powered by Google Cloud’s generative AIs and large language models (LLMs). Over the past few years, Google has developed a number of LLMs and other AI tools, including GLaM, PaLM, and LaMDA (the AI model that one researcher got fired for thinking was sentient). They’re all trained on gigantic datasets and are capable of understanding complex sentences and concepts and generating human-like text. LaMDA used to power the chatbot Google Bard, but it’s since been moved to the new and improved PaLM 2 model.

Crucially, these LLMs can be further trained on specific data—which is exactly what Wendy’s has done. According to the press release, because customers can completely customize their orders, there are billions of possible menu combinations. To limit miscommunications and incorrect orders, the AI has been trained on Wendy’s menu. According to The WSJ report, it has been taught the “unique terms, phrases and acronyms” that customers use when ordering at Wendy’s, including “JBC” for junior bacon cheeseburger and “biggie bags” for “various combinations of burgers, chicken nuggets and soft drinks.” Apparently, you will even be able to order a milkshake—despite Wendy’s officially calling them “Frosties.” It’s even been taught to upsell customers by offering larger sizes and daily specials, and to answer frequently asked questions.

[Related: Google previews an AI-powered future at I/O 2023]

To keep Wendy’s FreshAI from spouting nonsense or taking orders for McNuggets, it has also been trained on the company’s established business practices and was given some logical and conversational guardrails. While it can take your order, it probably won’t be able to plot world domination. Still, Wendy’s Chief Executive Todd Penegor told The WSJ: “it will be very conversational. You won’t know you’re talking to anybody but an employee.”

And from the tests so far, it’s apparently a pretty good employee at that. “It’s at least as good as our best customer service representative, and it’s probably on average better,” Kevin Vasconi, Wendy’s chief information officer, told The WSJ.

Wendy’s hopes the AI will speed up drive-thru orders which the company says account for between 75 and 80 percent of its business. Of course, getting the chatbot to work perfectly won’t be without its challenges. 

“You may think driving by and speaking into a drive-through is an easy problem for AI, but it’s actually one of the hardest,” Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud, told The WSJ. He listed the noise of music or children in a family car and people changing their mind mid-order as some of the problems that the AI has to be able to overcome. 

Assuming the AI works as planned, Wendy’s is aiming to launch it at a company-operated store in Columbus, Ohio, next month. If it’s a success, it could roll out more widely over the next few months.