Your next Taco Bell orders could be taken with artificial intelligence as fast food chains from McDonald's to Chipotle test automation to combat the brutal labor shortage still plaguing the industry



  • McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Panera Bread unveiled new drive-thru tech.
  • Taco Bell said it is testing AI-powered bots at the drive-thru. 
  • Here are 13 chains adding voice bots, robotic fry cooks, and mobile-order express lanes. 

McDonald's and Subway recently unveiled new contactless technology for takeout and drive-thru orders. DRIVETHRUCITY

The nation's two largest fast food chains in terms of locations are joining a fray of restaurant companies betting big on innovation that involves faster service and fewer humans amid an ongoing labor shortage.

Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Domino's are using AI-powered voice bots to take orders, while fast-casual chains like Sweetgreen are adding drive-thru lanes designated for faster pickup of digital orders. DRIVETHRUCITY

During an investor conference held Tuesday in New York, Taco Bell's parent company, Yum Brands, said it is testing conversational AI internally and at a Taco Bell drive thru. The pilot, where a voice bot takes orders, is part of a strategy to leverage technologies to make for "easy experiences for customers" and employees, Chris Turner, chief financial officer, told Insider in a post-conference phone interview. DRIVETHRUCITY

Fast-tracking automation comes as the labor outlook continues to look grim for the industry. Earlier this month, new Labor Department data shows that the restaurant industry is still short 400,000 workers compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

Here's a look at the 13 chains and restaurant companies adding automated tech to augment labor and speed up service for digital customers.

Chipotle opened its first Chipotlane in 2018. The new format store has a drive-thru lane dedicated to mobile pickup orders. It was designed to increase the speed of pickup orders for consumers and delivery drivers. Soon chains across the US began to copy Chipotle. DRIVETHRUCITY

In mid-November, the fast-casual chain Sweetgreen opened its first restaurant with a drive-thru pick-up lane. The salad chain is calling the new design feature a Sweetlane.

In June, Chick-fil-A said it began testing a drive-thru express experience for customers. Restaurants with express lanes allow mobile app customers to bypass the traditional drive-thru line to pick up their meals.

Tech companies like ConverseNow are swiftly reshaping how restaurants take phone orders by automating the process with AI-powered virtual assistants. ConverseNow's tech is live in more than 1,250 stores, including Domino's and Fazoli's. DRIVETHRUCITY

Checkers & Rally's said it became one of the first large restaurant companies to implement widespread use of AI-powered voice assistants. Out of the total 803 Checkers and Rally's restaurants, voice AI is live in 280 of them.

Taco Bell's latest drive-thru innovation is aimed at speed of service. The new Taco Bell Defy restaurant opened in June 2022 with four drive-thru lanes in Minnesota. Like a Chipotlane, the design includes designated pick-up lanes for mobile orders.

Taco Bell is also testing conversational AI at the drive-thru "to help us potentially automate ordering," according to Chris Turner, the chief financial officer at Yum Brands, Taco Bell's parent company. Before scaling, the chain will continue to test it to "ensure that it creates a great customer experience." He didn't disclose the test location. DRIVETHRUCITY

In the fall, fast-casual chain Panera Bread began testing AI-powered drive-thru tech at two upstate New York restaurants. An automated bot named "Tori" created by the startup OpenCity takes orders from drive-thru customers.

A Popeyes restaurant in Louisiana began testing drive-thru voice bots in April using the same food-tech startup, OpenCity, as Panera. The franchisee said the speed of service has increased by 20% by using the bot. The restaurant's drink sales have also increased by 150% because "Tori" automatically upsells high-margin items such as soda fountain drinks, sides, and desserts. DRIVETHRUCITY

Restaurant Brands International, the parent of Burger King, recently opened a delivery-focused food hall in Miami, Florida. One central kitchen serves meals from Burger King, Popeyes, Firehouse Subs, and other chains.

KYLO Food Hall is equipped with kiosks for walk-in orders. No cashiers.

Last week, McDonald's opened a new format restaurant with an order-ahead lane for picking up digital orders from a food and beverage conveyor.

In September, Subway installed its first unattended smart fridge at UC San Diego in California. Powered by AI, the fridge is stocked with grab & go sandwiches. Customers can talk directly to the smart fridge and ask about any of the products inside, Subway said. DRIVETHRUCITY

Chili's is replacing grill tops with high-tech grills programmed to automate cook times for burgers, steaks, chicken, and salmon. A medium or "pink in center" burger takes about 50 seconds to cook. DRIVETHRUCITY

In December 2021, Shake Shack opened its first restaurant with drive-thru lanes in Maple Grove, Minnesota. One lane is dedicated to fetching mobile orders.


Chipotle began testing AI-powered voice assistants for phone orders in early 2018. The chain is also innovating in the kitchen. This year, the chain began testing Chippy, a tortilla chip-making robot by Miso Robotics.