Fast Food Drive-Thrus Are Tough For AI Self-Driving Cars, But They’ll Eventually Get It

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

Image for post
Image for post

[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

Drive-Thru Is Big Business

In the United States, there’s an estimated 200,000 or so drive-thru operations (possibly a lot more, depending upon how you are counting).

Some statistics claim that Americans do about 6 billion drive-thru “visits” each year.

For these kinds of stats, they often count only fast food drive-thru operations, while other counts include our drive-thru efforts at pharmacies to get prescriptions and at banks to use ATM’s.

The drive-thru is essential to most of the fast food restaurants, including for Starbucks about 40% of their locations have a drive-thru, and in the case of McDonald’s it accounts for 70% of their business in the United States.

According to fast food drive-thru insiders, the average total time to navigate through the drive-thru and pop out the other side with your food is around 3.5 minutes.

That’s pretty quick.

The streamlined drive-thru fast food restaurants actually aim at a 3-minute average time, well undercutting the 3 ½ minutes norm.

You might assume that McDonald’s was the ground breaker in terms of establishing drive-thru fast food in the United States.


The fast food approach was first started by a restaurant in Springfield, Missouri in 1947, and then a few years later in 1951 it was Jack In The Box that became the first widespread chain to adopt drive-thru operations.

We’ve become quite a fast food nation since those days.

Popularity Of Drive-Thrus

Why do we seem to so greatly utilize drive-thru fast food restaurants?

It’s quite a convenience to do so.

You are in your car, driving along, and you get hungry or know that you will soon be hungry.

Via a drive-thru, you remain in your car, you can expeditiously order and get your food, and then take your food to whatever desired location that you’d like to consume it.

So, I think we’d all agree that the drive-thru is a time saver.

There have been some backlashes against fast food restaurants, namely that they have too easily made available food that is not nutritious and essentially the food provided is bad for us.

There are those that accuse the drive-thru operations as having subliminally led our society to becoming overweight.

Sure, it’s convenient and a time saver, but maybe also harming us too. It has been like dangling candy in front of a baby. We as a society have fallen “victim” to the ease of drive-thru fast food, and in the end it has produced obesity and weight related health issues for the whole society.

The fast food chains have tried to at times to change the nature of the food offered, attempting to make the food products more nutritious.

Autonomous Cars And Drive-Thrus

Indeed, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI systems for self-driving cars. One interesting aspect of self-driving cars is how they will do when trying to make use of a fast food drive-thru.

Some pundits have insisted that the AI should refuse to use a fast food drive-thru. This would seem to be a means to prevent the furtherance of the fast food drive-thru evil bidding. AI becomes a kind of savior of humans, by not allowing those humans to harm themselves via fast food.

Well, I have one thing to say about this.

You must be crazy to think that people are not going to want to continue using fast food drive-thru operations.

They are going to want to do so.

I also point out to those advocating that the AI would somehow be universally pre-programmed to not allow visiting a fast food drive-thru are taking things down a rather slippery slope.

What else would you then say that the AI should prevent us from doing?

Suppose you believe that shopping malls are bad for us.

Would we then pre-program all AI self-driving cars to never go to malls?

The point is that using AI to become a controller of human society is something that we’ll all need to be very thoughtful about and consider whether this makes sense to do, and how it would be appropriately undertaken, if at all.

Practicalities Of Drive-Thru Navigation

There are some automakers and tech firms that say that the use of a drive-thru is outside the scope of their current efforts for AI self-driving cars.

They perceive that the core capabilities of an AI self-driving car include driving around on our streets and navigating our roads. Sure, it can also navigate a parking lot and park the car. But, the intricacies of a drive-thru are not in their wheelhouse, for now. It’s a much lower priority and someday they’ll consider providing such a capability.

In that sense, they are suggesting that the navigation of a drive-thru is considered an “edge” problem for AI self-driving cars. An edge problem in the computer field is considered anything at the periphery of whatever you are otherwise trying to solve.

I have a feeling that if you asked the fast food chains whether they care about AI self-driving cars not being able to navigate a drive-thru, you’d get a resounding yes that they do indeed care about whether AI self-driving cars can do so or not.

Right now, the number of AI self-driving cars is so tiny that no one would notice or care that they might not be able to do a drive-thru, but once AI self-driving cars start to become prevalent, I assure you the fast food companies would notice and create quite a stir.

Here are the various steps for coping with a drive-thru:

  • Arrive at drive-thru location
  • Find the drive-thru entrance
  • Enter into the drive-thru entrance
  • Navigate the drive-thru to a menu board (wait)
  • Navigate the drive-thru to an ordering station (wait)
  • Navigate the drive-thru to an order payment window (wait)
  • Navigate the drive-thru to an order pick-up window (wait)
  • Navigate to the exit of the drive-thru
  • Proceed henceforth on rest of driving journey

Details About Drive-Thru Aspects

I’ll briefly walk you through some of the steps, providing an indication of why each such step is somewhat beyond the normal driving tasks that an AI self-driving car is prepared to undertake.

Finding the entrance for a drive-thru can be tricky.

There are usually signs that indicate where the entrance is. The visual sensors of the AI self-driving car will likely be able to detect these signs.

Often, there is a menu board that is sitting astride the drive-thru path and it is intended to provide the human with an indication of what food products are available for purchase.

You might find it interesting that the menu board is actually quite important for a drive-thru.

Studies show that the menu board can be a tremendous up-sell motivator.

Usually, after the menu board or sometimes right at the location of the menu board, there is an ordering station. In some cases, you need to drive further forward to get to the order station, which could also be one of the windows of the drive-thru.

After placing the order, a human driver then proceeds to a payment window. At the payment window, the human provides some form of payment, usually credit card, debit card, or cash. This window might also serve as the order delivery window.

Once at the delivery window, the human in the car awaits the order. This might also entail some discussion with the agent at the order window.

Once the food has been handed over to the human that’s inside the car, the car usually then proceeds forward. There is usually an exit from the drive-thru. After getting to the exit point, the driver usually needs to look and make sure that they can further proceed.

In quick recap, the self-driving car has to find the proper entrance, and then do a series of proceeding forwards, encompassing stop-and-waits along the way, and then at the end of the path be ready to continue into typical roadway conditions.

Twists And Turns

There’s also the twist that the drive-thru might already have other cars in the midst of the same process.

Of which, some of those cars might be human driven and some of those cars might be AI self-driving cars.

One aspect about these other cars involved in the drive-thru process is the short distances between each car. Most of today’s AI self-driving cars are not keen on being bumper-to-bumper with other cars.

Presumably, the AI self-driving car can do a follow-the-leader approach of driving the drive-thru, merely detecting the car ahead and opting to generally follow that car.

The AI self-driving car needs to be alert to the potential of pedestrians while the self-driving car is navigating the drive-thru. Of course, most drive-thru operations don’t permit pedestrians to come up to the drive-thru windows, and so it is generally a rarity to have to deal with pedestrians while navigating a drive-thru in your car. It can happen, though.

There are some other interesting exceptions or special cases involved in a drive-thru.

Another special case are the drive-thru entrances that allow two cars to merge into one lane as they come into the drive-thru. That’s another special handling circumstance.

And so on.

Machine Learning And Drive-Thrus

You might be thinking that the driving of a drive-thru isn’t that tough to figure out.

Us humans do it all the time, and can come upon a drive-thru that we’ve never driven and be able to readily navigate it.

This brings up the notion of Machine Learning (ML). It is conceivable that via the use of Machine Learning that you can have an AI self-driving car derive how to drive a drive-thru, after having undertaken the driving of some drive-thrus.

In essence, the more drive-thrus you use, and if you are paying attention and learning from each instance, you can get better at navigating a drive-thru.

The use of ML should be included to improve its driving ability of the drive-thru operations over time.

So far, I’ve had an unspoken assumption in this discussion that the AI self-driving car contained human occupants, and that it would presumably be the human occupants involved in the ordering, payment, and food acceptance process.

One aspect about true AI self-driving cars is that there is no requirement that a human occupant be inside an AI self-driving car and that the AI self-driving car might be undertaking a journey without any human occupants involved per se.

With the emergence already of remote mobile ordering of fast food, the first two parts of the human-not-present are readily able to be handled.

In some manner, the AI self-driving car would need to be able to figure out where it needs to go once it arrives at the fast food restaurant, whether to navigate the drive-thru or go to an identified pick-up spot.

How Drive-Thru Operations Might Change

Another aspect of dealing with drive-thru operations will be the desire of the drive-thru owners to ensure that AI self-driving cars can readily and safely navigate the drive-thru.

Obviously, the owners have a big motivation to make sure that AI driven cars can come to the drive-thru.

It is possible that drive-thru operations will willingly adjust their drive-thru operations to accommodate AI self-driving cars, especially if the AI of the AI self-driving cars is crude at dealing with a drive-thru or unable to do so on its own.

Via adding various electronic communications devices, somewhat akin to the Internet of Things (IoT), the drive-thru could be transmitting instructions to an AI self-driving car regarding navigating the drive-thru.

The need for a drive-thru to adjust and add the various IoT communicating instructions is an added cost to the drive-thru operation. As such, if you multiply that cost by the thousands upon thousands of drive-thrus in the United States, it could be quite a financial burden for the drive-thru owners. I’m sure the drive-thru owners would prefer to avoid that cost if possible.

I’d also anticipate that with the advent of blockchain, it will be likely that the entire transaction occurs electronically in the cloud, and that your preferred order from fast food places would be stored in the blockchain too (in addition to paying for the food and for the ride share ride).


Some believe that via the advent of AI self-driving cars that there won’t even be any need for a drive-thru anymore, since instead the AI self-driving car would merely park and pick-up orders.

Though this is a possibility, I’d bet that humans will still be interested in doing a drive-thru and not necessarily ordering their food remotely. We might eventually get there, but not in the nearer term.

AI self-driving cars and drive-thru operations, for some people it will be a match made in heaven. We just need to make sure that the AI is capable enough to cope with a drive-thru.

That’s an order — and would you like some ketchup with that?

For free podcast of this story, visit:

The podcasts are also available on Spotify, iTunes, iHeartRadio, etc.

More info about AI self-driving cars, see:

To follow Lance Eliot on Twitter:

For his blog, see:

For his AI Trends blog, see:

For his Medium blog, see:

For Dr. Eliot’s books, see:

Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

Written by

Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store