Drive-Thru Challenged By Future In-Car Dining Experiences

Drive-Thru Challenged By Future In-Car Dining Experiences

Sooner or later, it happens to all of us when we’re on the road. The hunger pangs strike, or a deep and abiding need for coffee arises.

That’s when we can take advantage of that great 20th century innovation, the drive-thru restaurant and/or cafe. Yet, that 1900s marvel is getting a bit out of date on this side of the Millennium. After all, it hasn’t truly been modernized at all over the years; pulling into one and ordering a meal and/or drinks is basically the same experience it was decades ago.

Many believe there is significant room for improvement. One is Dan McCann, CEO of early-stage retail tech company 5thru. “I can’t even count the number of times I’ve driven out of my way to hit up a drive-thru, only to see the line ten cars deep, causing me to drive away without what I came for,” he said.

Citing other small, but infuriating, aggravations such as bad traffic flow and payment acceptance struggles, McCann concluded: “By the time I get to the payment window, I’m already irate.”

Grandly describing itself as a provider of “the drive-thru reimagined,” 5thru has developed a identify-by-license-plate technology that can automate much of the process. It speeds up the ordering procedure by reading the vehicle’s license plate; if that automobile contains a returning customer whose payment card is on file, the transaction could be completed before the car gets to the window.

Since most businesses that have drive-thrus are part of a chain, this information can be shared throughout the network. So, for example, if you pay with a Starbucks card at your favorite branch of that coffee slinger, you could then glide through any other Starbucks equipped with this technology.

Speed and efficiency are two areas that certainly need improvement but will systems like 5thru’s be enough to wrench the drive-thru completely into the 21st century? Laurel Ashbrook, an executive vice-president at market researcher Ipsos, doesn’t think so – especially as far as the major segment of car commerce is concerned. “For quick service restaurants [QSRs] in particular, speed and accuracy of order will no longer be the only variables to focus on,” she said. “To truly compete and differentiate, these restaurants will also need to determine how to deliver against an elevated ‘in the car dining experience’.”

As with many aspects of driving, the relationship of car occupant to takeout food and drink could very well change as we get closer to full autonomy. With no human driver, the car has the potential of becoming essentially a traveling dining room. If this happens, an in-car meal could become an occasion to be savored and shared, rather than the present grab-and-gobble experience.

To be sure, some restaurant chains are working on revamps. In the US, seafood purveyor Long John Silver’s has embarked on a project to build out what it grandiosely calls “drive-thrus of the future”. Up to 400 of its vehicle-serving facilities are to receive high-definition video screens and audio for the ordering part of the experience, plus an IT solution that the company promises will “dramatically improve the ordering process.”

According to Long John Silver’s press release on the project, its souped-up system “provides digital order confirmation and full-color, high-resolution animation, video and graphics for an engaging and interesting experience for customers”. It also claims fast updating of both menus and limited-time promotions.

That’s all well and good but it’s basically an enhancement of the traditional drive-thru, rather than a bold leap into the future. It doesn’t address what drive-thru operators really need in order to modernize their in-car business, according to some.

“There is a perception that drive-thrus should be fast and anonymous,” said McCann. “Really, the opposite is true – if you know who the customer is, you can actually speed things up and that kind of personalization is the key to unlocking the possibility for a seamless autonomous experience at the drive-thru.”

Locking-in on the client won’t necessarily be an easy task. Ashbrook feels that the customer base will widen, perhaps becoming less easily categorized. “I think we will continue to see drive-thru, delivery, and order and pick up grow through expanded remits – just as the types of items we can order ahead and pick up, or get delivered, continue to multiply, consumers will have increased expectations of what they should be able to retrieve through a drive-thru,” she said.

Also, those autonomous cars might best be served by non-human peers absorbing orders and slinging food. “Artificial intelligence-enabled attendants are the future,” said McCann. Automated order taking has gained popularity lately within certain restaurant chains; McDonald’s is a notable example but, like drive-thru innovation generally, take-up is slow and cautious… at least, for now.

“You already see some automation in places like Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan,” added McCann. “We find that the North American market isn’t quite ready to make the jump just yet but, when it comes, it will come fast,” he added. Perhaps we’ll be able to say the same about general drive-thru upgrades for the Age of Autonomy.


  1. Avatar John 25th January 2019 @ 4:18 pm

    The future does belong to the innovators but what happens when the customer base is diminished owing to lack of jobs that pay enough to continue the present middle class?
    People need money to purchase items that drive industry. I’m not sure I see the level playing field for the middle class. Everyone is ready to move towards automation and yet the human factor seems to be left with very little to do.

  2. Avatar Pat Patterson 31st January 2019 @ 2:42 pm

    When you sell your car, the license plate does not always get changed out. This sets forth an issue. This software is going to associate the license plate with my CC information to complete a transaction. I also don’t want a business storing my credit information. Too many networks are being hacked and customers information is being stolen. I love innovation but this project should be dropped.

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