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Drive-Thrus and AI Autonomous Cars


Drive-Thrus and AI Autonomous Cars 1
While considered an edge problem today, AI self-driving cars will need to be able to successfully navigate restaurant drive-thrus. (GETTY IMAGES)

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

Last night, I used a drive-thru fast food restaurant to get my dinner and became aware that doing so at 6:30 p.m. was not the best time choice. Cars were stacked up like planes at a busy airport. What normally would have taken a few easy minutes to do, including placing my order, paying, and getting my order, turned into so lengthy a wait that I am pretty sure I could have cooked my own meal in the same time period (including the time to purchase the ingredients at the grocery store!).

Anyway, it was my fault too for using the drive-thru at a peak dinner time. Going to a sit-down restaurant would have been even worse of a wait and indeed last week I waited nearly two hours to get a table in a popular downtown Los Angeles eatery. After getting seated that night, it took another twenty minutes to have a waiter take my order. By the time the food arrived, I do believe that I had fallen to the floor from starvation and they had to pump the food into me. Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Let’s discuss drive-thru operations.

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.

My experience the other night of having had a long wait time for getting fast food is actually an anomaly. 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.

Of course, as a drive-thru operator, you can try to trick the drive-thru times by doing a lousy job in terms of accuracy of the order. If you just jam together a customer order and shove it out the window, not knowing whether your team got the order right or not, you can possibly shave some additional time from the timekeeper. This might be faster since you are pushing your people to move speedily and not do any particular double-checking or have much tender-loving care in the handing of the order. It’s a “pure transaction” kind of mindset and the clock is the kingpin. The problem with inaccurate orders is that customers might decide not to come back to your drive-thru ever again, once they get home and discover the botched order, and so the drive-thru will ultimately suffer accordingly.

To try to prevent this kind of sneak around by those manning the drive-thru, most drive-thru owners also track accuracy rates. Generally, the accuracy rate is around 90% for fast food drive-thru operations. This might seem good, since you are getting 9 out of every 10 orders right, but that also means that 10% of the time or around 1 out of every 10 drive-thru orders will be fulfilled inaccurately. That’s not something to be proud of. The drive-thru operations are striving for more like a 93-95% accuracy average, though it takes a lot of attention and strident controls to get there.

You might assume that McDonald’s was the ground breaker in terms of establishing drive-thru fast food in the United States. Surprise! 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. As an aside, though the focus herein is fast food drive-thru, you might find of interest that there are some rather unusual drive-thru businesses beyond fast food, including in Las Vegas you can get married via using a drive-thru (and, I wonder, can you say that you’d like fries with that?).

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. Going to a sit-down restaurant is laborious in that you need to park your car, go into the restaurant, find a place to sit inside the restaurant, you need to order your food and get it brought to your table, and when you are done with the meal there’s usually a wait time to get the bill and pay for it. Plus, you then need to exit the restaurant, maybe having cleaned your table before doing so, and you need to get back to your parked car. Exhausting. Time consuming.

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. Generally, no need to park related to getting the food, or at least no need to drive around trying to find a place to park (I realize that some drive-thru operations will ask you to temporarily park your car while your order is being filled, but they normally have designated parking spots for this purpose, thus no need for you to endlessly search to find a parking spot like doing so at most sit-down restaurants).

So, I think we’d all agree that the drive-thru is a time saver. It also is convenient since it dispenses with the other logistics involved in doing a sit-down.

Some people also like the drive-thru because they can be dressed informally (maybe even in PJ’s!), and use a drive-thru, while if they did a sit-down they’d feel obligated to be a bit more properly attired. When my children were young, I admit that the drive-thru was nice because having to get the children out of their car seats was a chore and once inside a restaurant they would not sit still. Please though know that I didn’t always choose the drive-thru, and indeed many of the fast food places were quite alluring for a sit down with the children due to the playgrounds that the restaurants cleverly put in place (a great way to give the kids a chance to burn-off energy and have some romping fun).

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. They have also at times posted indications of the calories and fat content, along with other nutritional information. Some would say that the fast food places have only taken these “corrective” actions when dragged to it via new regulations and not because they appear to genuinely believe it is better for the consumers of the fast food.

I’m not going to address herein the topic of whether fast food is right or wrong, and nor whether the drive-thru was possibly an evil more than a good. Instead, I’d like to focus on the drive-thru as a phenomenon in of itself and consider various aspects about it.

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.

When I bring up at my industry presentations the notion of AI self-driving cars being able to navigate through a fast food drive-thru, I sometimes get a groan from people that want to complain about how bad fast food is for us as a society. They then say that it seems like a rotten use of a new-fangled innovation like AI self-driving cars to continue to “poison” ourselves by using fast food drive-thrus.

I’ve even had some that 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. Furthermore, trying to use the AI as a kind of mother hen, I doubt very much that people will stand for this. They would likely be aghast that the AI refuses to make use of a drive-thru. Using an AI self-driving car to somehow solve a perceived society “problem” of the use of fast food is just not the right kind of tool to be used for that purpose, I assert.

For my article about the ethical aspects of the AI for self-driving cars, see:

For idealists and their views about AI self-driving cars, see:

Now, please be aware that I do provide those people with some hope, doing so in the following way. I point out that with their AI self-driving car, they will likely be able to provide various of their own restrictions to where the AI self-driving car can go. For example, since it is likely that people will use their AI self-driving car to take their children to school or to baseball practice after school, the parents could conceivably instruct the AI that the children are not to be allowed to use the AI self-driving car to go to a fast food drive-thru.

In that sense, if people want to selectively choose not to use a fast food drive-thru, they can certainly choose that option. This though is a personal choice. It’s not a government mandated choice. It is not up to Big Brother, but instead up to society members to choose what they wish to do. Just as today, when you are driving a car, there’s nothing compelling you to use a fast food drive-thru. Similarly, the AI is not presumably going to compel you to use a fast food drive-thru. Plus, you can intentionally instruct the AI to not use a fast food drive-thru. That’s your choice.

For my article about federal regulations related to AI self-driving cars, see:

For aspects of the natural language processing and interaction with AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For privacy aspects of AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For my article about conspiracy theories and AI self-driving cars, see:

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? Suppose you believe that churches are bad – would we then pre-program all AI self-driving cars to never go to churches?

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. The irony is that most pundits say that the advent of AI self-driving cars will unleash mobility and we’ll become a mobility-as-a-society economy. Kind of ironic to think that this might be used against us, in that the AI also allows potentially for controlling where people can go with their cars.

I’d like to proceed for the moment with the assumption that AI self-driving cars will be used to go to fast food drive-thrus.

Let’s take a closer look at the practical aspects of how that would occur.

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’ve had AI developers tell me that people should just use sit-down restaurants and not worry about using drive-thru operations, at least for the foreseeable future in terms of the first iterations of AI self-driving cars.

For my article about edge problems in AI self-driving cars, see:

For the egocentric design viewpoint of AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For why the AI self-driving car is a kind of moonshot, see my article:

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.

Why would fast food restaurants care? Imagine if you had a business that was going to essentially be blockaded and this blockading mechanism would not readily allow people to come to your business. You’d be pretty steamed about it. As I mentioned earlier, the drive-thru is an essential aspect of the fast food industry. If you inadvertently deprive the public at large of using a drive-thru, that’s going to be a huge revenue blow to the fast food industry. You’d see those fast food places shrink and lots of employees laid-off.

Notice that I said that the AI self-driving cars might inadvertently be a form of blockade on this drive-thru matter. Unlike the earlier notion about purposely pre-programming AI self-driving cars to avoid a drive-thru, this is instead the circumstance that the AI self-driving car just doesn’t know how to navigate a drive-thru. It’s not yet been programmed to do so, because it’s considered an edge or low priority problem, and thus the AI is unable to perform that particular driving task. Those that are again the ones that want to prevent AI self-driving cars from using a drive-thru would be thrilled to know that there’s a chance that the AI self-driving cars might not be able to use a drive-thru simply because they aren’t capable of doing so.

I’m sure there are some AI developers reading this discussion right now that are besides themselves saying that they cannot imagine why an AI self-driving car cannot navigate a drive-thru. This seems on the surface like a very simple driving task. Heck, novice teenage drivers are able to even navigate a drive-thru. This must be a no-brainer. Shouldn’t any AI that can otherwise drive a car on our streets be able to also navigate a drive-thru?

Yes and no.

Let’s consider the nature of the driving task as it relates to a drive-thru.

Keep in mind too that an AI self-driving car generally consists of these key driving components (per my framework):

  • Sensor data collection and interpretation
  • Sensor fusion
  • Virtual world model updating
  • AI action planning
  • Car controls commands issuance

For my overall framework about AI self-driving cars, see:

I’d also like to mention that there are varying levels of self-driving cars. The topmost level, considered a Level 5, consists of an AI self-driving car that requires no human driver. AI is supposed to be able to drive in whatever manner a human can drive a car. There are usually no brake pedals, no gas pedals, and no steering wheel provided inside an AI self-driving car, since it is expected that there is not a human driver involved. For self-driving cars less than a Level 5, it is required that a human driver be present at all times and ready to undertake the driving task. In fact, it is expected that the human driver is co-sharing the driving task with the AI, which I’ve pointed out many times is ripe for quite adverse consequences.

For the levels of AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For the dangers of the co-sharing of the driving task of human and AI, see my article:

For the responsibility about driving and AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For the purposes of this discussion about drive-thru operations, I’m going to only focus on the Level 5 self-driving cars.

This is sensible since a self-driving car that’s less than a Level 5 has as a requirement that there be a human driver present and able to drive the car. In that case, if the AI self-driving car lacked an AI capability to navigate a drive-thru, the AI would presumably just hand the controls over to the human upon arriving at a drive-thru location, and indicate to the human to proceed as desired, namely the human would then drive the drive-thru. Once the human completed this part of the driving journey and popped out of the other end of the drive-thru, the AI could then presumably indicate it would take over the driving once again, on a co-shared basis, and proceed to whatever is the next destination such as home or batting practice.

Thus, herein the attention is toward the nature of the drive-thru driving task and how the AI could undertake such a task.

For a true Level 5 self-driving car, the AI would need to be able to entirely navigate the drive-thru and not at any time need to revert back to a human driver (since there isn’t a human driver in the Level 5 self-driving car; or, even if one happens to be in the self-driving car, there is no provision and no expectation of them needing to drive the self-driving car, at any time, and indeed for none of the time).

Upon arriving at a drive-thru location, which the AI of a self-driving car would be able to achieve by the usual capabilities of navigating to a particular address, the various steps include:

  • 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

Those aforementioned steps are the general aspects of dealing with a drive-thru.

There are lots of exceptions and other aspects, but let’s put those aside for the moment and concentrate on the overarching elements.

Details About Drive-Thru Aspects

I’ll briefly walk you through each 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. This sign detection can be somewhat hard since the signs are not standardized, akin to street signs like speed limits signs and such that are relatively standardized. Instead, these drive-thru signs can be whatever size, shape, colors, etc. that the drive-thru operator has chosen to use.

The AI needs to be able to detect those signs and interpret the signs as to where the AI self-driving car is to go. This involves updating the virtual world model and the AI updating its action plan, along with issuing car controls commands such as drive ahead ten feet and turn the wheel so that the car ends-up between those two curbs at the drive-thru entrance.

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. I’m going to assume for the moment that the AI self-driving car in this scenario has a human inside it and will consider later on herein the case of no human within and other such variations.

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

I’m sure you likely go to fast food restaurants and often order the same food items each time. Therefore, you tend to ignore the menu board. You might even have a hard time remembering what the menu board even looks like at your favorite fast food drive-thru. As such, you might be surprised to know that the menu board is considered essential by the fast food operators.

Studies show that the menu board can be a tremendous upsell motivator. The human going through a drive-thru sees the items shown on the menu board, and even if that person already has a particular order in mind, they are often sparked at the moment to increase their order. If you’ve been in a car with children, I assure you that the children often look at the menu board and excitedly want to order everything shown on the board. Those menu boards are more than decorations, they are key as a revenue maker for the fast food entity.

Usually, after the menu board or sometimes right at the location of the menu board, there is an ordering station. This might consist of a microphone and speaker, along with sometimes an electronic display that can be used to show the order to the human in the car. 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. In many cases, the payment window is separate from the order delivery window. In that case, after paying, the driver needs to proceed forward to the 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. Included in this discussion could be requests for utensils and other such items. It could also involve the human opting to change their order or make other special requests.

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. The exit from the drive-thru might end-up into a parking lot or at times might arrive at a street or similar roadway. The driver needs to be mindful that they are now entering into overall traffic.

This point about entering into overall traffic is somewhat important. Usually, once the human driver has initially entered into the drive-thru at the entrance, they are essentially in a “protected” area within the confines of the drive-thru operation. In that sense, there tends to be less traffic-oriented issues that can arise, versus when being immersed into a normal traffic situation. It’s a kind of special quiet zone, of sorts. Once the car has reached the exit of the drive-thru, all the usual kinds of traffic dangers and considerations come back into play, and all bets are off.

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. It presumably does not matter whether the cars in the path are human driven versus AI self-driving car driven, in the sense that the focus of the AI self-driving car herein would need to ensure that it does not hit any of those other cars and nor if possible get hit by any of those other 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. Humans are used to being within inches of other cars, sometimes nearly actually at the bumper of other cars. For most AI self-driving cars, the AI system has been developed to allow for a greater preference of distance between the self-driving car and other cars, doing so as a safety measure and also to cope with the variability involved in the self-driving car sensors and distance detection.

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 other car would presumably be doing the same series of stop-and-wait positioning, which could aid the AI in ascertaining where each of those spots are. This though cannot be done blindly, so to speak, by the AI self-driving car, because the car ahead could have had other reasons to come to other stops-and-waits and it does not necessarily mean those are the proper spots for stops-and-waits.

For more about AI about the pied piper approach of AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For aspects about defensive driving by AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For pedestrians and AI self-driving cars, see my article:

When I mentioned earlier that the drive-thru path is generally a protected path, it was a generalization that must be taken with a grain of salt. There’s a drive-thru nearby where I live that has a bit of a sidewalk-like path that cuts through the drive-thru of the fast food restaurant. This fast food restaurant is also just a block or so away from a large high school. If you attempt to do the drive-thru just after the high school lets out, upon entering into the fast food drive-thru, you need to be watching out for a seemingly endless stream of high school students walking along that sidewalk, blocking your efforts to proceed forward in the drive-thru path.

Thus, 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, and the AI needs to be prepared to cope with the perhaps sudden and at times erratic behavior of pedestrians that could invade the drive-thru path.

There are some other interesting exceptions or special cases involved in a drive-thru. One time, I was at the tail end of the drive-thru, which was otherwise packed with a line of cars. As I came upon the drive-thru entrance and became the last car in sequence, for whatever reason, the car ahead of me suddenly put itself into reverse and started to back-up toward my car. I guess they didn’t want to wait in the long time of cars, or maybe they decided it wasn’t the kind of fast food they had a taste for at that time.

What would you do? You could of course refuse to also back-up. Tough luck for them that they decided to try and get out of the line. They could have just continued forward like the other cars, and declined to order anything, if they had decided they no longer wanted that particular fast food. I realize that if they opted to stay in line, they would need to wait their turn and that it would be frustrating for them, since they weren’t actually presumably going to be ordering food. But, it would be a lot easier on everyone else if they had just proceeded forward in line, ordering or not, whichever they wished to do.

I looked behind my car and there weren’t any other cars in line behind me. It was a bit dicey though that the entrance was preceded by a somewhat busy traffic area of a mall. I would be trying to back-up into a traffic lane. Other cars coming along would not be expecting a car to be backing out of the drive-thru area. There was a chance of me causing a collision or other calamity by trying to back my car out into the traffic lane. It seemed like a dangerous and somewhat unwarranted thing to do, and all the other car had to do was wait things out and proceed forward (I suppose you could say that maybe the other car had someone in it that had suffered a heart attack and they needed to urgently be rushed to the nearest hospital – well, I don’t think that was the case and it appeared to be a bunch of teenage drivers that willy-nilly had changed their minds).

For my article about the potential of AI self-driving cars to drive illegally, see:

For my article about driving tit-for-tat with other cars, see:

I opted to back-up my car and let the other car out of the drive-thru path. Probably shouldn’t have been so generous. Maybe they’ll think they can do this same stunt as often as they like. For our herein purposes, the point is that there can be exceptions to the normal run-the-mill forward step-at-a-time progression of 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.

We are a big advocate of the use of ML for that purpose. It doesn’t negate the need to have the primitives already in-hand of how to navigate a drive-thru. In other words, you can’t just unleash the AI self-driving car into the world and hope that it somehow figures out the drive-thru navigation. It is something that needs to be provided as a bootstrap.

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

I had mentioned earlier that a drive-thru might have other AI self-driving cars in line, in addition to human driven cars.

Presumably, via the use of V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle communication), each of the AI self-driving cars can communicate electronically about being in the drive-thru line. For example, sometimes at certain times of the day, a drive-thru might close one of the windows and consolidate the ordering and payment and order delivery into the use of just one window. An AI self-driving car ahead of your AI self-driving car in the drive-thru line might be able to alert your AI self-driving car that there’s just one window open.

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.

You might be at home and decide that you are hungry for your favorite burger. Sure, you could hop into your AI self-driving car and tell it to go to the nearest fast food drive-thru. Or, instead, you might instruct your AI self-driving car to do so on your behalf. The driving aspects are the same regardless of whether you are in the self-driving car or not. The key change here would be that there’s not a human in the self-driving car to indicate the order, provide payment, and nor receive the food.

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. Assuming that the particular fast food restaurant you are interested in has already established mobile ordering, you can via your smartphone place your order, pay for it, and send your AI self-driving car along to do the pick-up for you. This could also entail that the AI self-driving car might not even go into the conventional drive-thru lane, since often times the fast food restaurants are arranging for a parking spot for mobile ordered food pick-up.

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. This could be communicated by the fast food restaurant at the time that the order was placed, and the human using their smartphone might electronically convey as such to the AI self-driving car, or merely tell the AI self-driving car that it needs to go the parking space #82 when it arrives at the fast food joint.

Speaking of humans having to instruct an AI self-driving car, I am often asked why an AI self-driving car would need to be particularly pre-trained on navigating a drive-thru when it could presumably be coached by a human. In other words, suppose you are in an AI self-driving car and it has not ever navigated a Taco Bell drive-thru before. When it arrives at the Taco Bell, you could possibly tell the AI to go there to the marked entrance, move ahead and stop, move ahead some more, stop, wait, move ahead, etc. Thus, via human led instruction, you are guiding the AI self-driving car, and if the AI self-driving car is paying attention it would be using Machine Learning to be able to do the same drive-thru on its own on future occasions.

For more about supervising of AI self-driving cars during ML, see my article:

For AI self-driving cars being able to detect street scenes, see my article:

Yes, this notion of human led instruction is possible.

It also tends to open a can of worms.

Suppose a child is doing the instruction to the AI and therefore it is feasible that the instructions given are misleading or just outright wrong. Or, the manner of the natural language instructions are ambiguous and it is difficult for the AI to figure out what the human is actually instructing. Overall, it’s a bit dicey to assume that human led instruction is going to be viable for an AI self-driving car. We’ll need much heftier AI to be able to cope with human led instruction.

For my article about common sense reasoning and AI self-driving cars, see:

For the singularity and AI, see my article:

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.

As pointed out earlier, drive-thru is a significant chunk of the revenue of a fast food restaurant.

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.

Once the AI self-driving car arrives near the entrance of the drive-thru, the fast food restaurant might beam messages as to where the entrance is. The fast food drive-thru could then beam to the AI self-driving car that the car should proceed forward and stop, then proceed forward again, and so on. In this manner, it is almost like an airplane being at an airport. There is a kind of traffic controller that is providing instructions to the AI self-driving cars. This could be done nearly entirely by computer to computer aspects and no human intervention necessarily needed.

For my article about IoT and AI self-driving cars, see:

For AI self-driving cars becoming delivery points, see my article:

For the advent of AI self-driving cars as ridesharing mechanisms, see my article:

For blockchain and AI self-driving cars, see my article:

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. It would be considered better if the AI itself was strong enough that no such adjustments were needed. This same AI strength could come to play in many other circumstances too, beyond just navigating a drive-thru.

With the advent of AI self-driving cars there is also going to be increased availability of ride sharing.

I’d be willing to bet that this will also mean that people will use a ride sharing service to sometimes bring them food from a fast food place (you are at home and request an AI self-driving car of a ride sharing service to pick-up some burgers for you). 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).

In terms of the AI system being able to navigate a fast food drive-thru, there’s a nearer term aid that the fast food places could also try. Rather than putting up various IoT devices at the fast food place to electronically communicate to the AI self-driving car, another approach would be to provide a set of instructions for an AI self-driving car. Those instructions could be shared with the AI self-driving car as a kind of overall guide about navigating the drive-thru. Those instructions aren’t as capable as the real-time interactivity of IoT, but at least would provide some semblance of aid to the AI for navigating the drive-thru.

We’re working on a protocol and templates for such purposes. This would make it easy for any fast food chain to readily populate the template with the specifics for each of their fast food locations. These could then be fed into the AI self-driving cars. Indeed, it could be included in the cloud based system supporting the particular brand of AI self-driving cars, and via their OTA (Over The Air) updating process, they could download and make use of the instructions.

For more about OTA, see my article:


Will AI self-driving cars spell the death knell for drive-thru operations?

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.

There are some that hope that AI self-driving cars might put fast food restaurants out of business since it is believed that fast food is bad for us. I’d tend to believe that AI self-driving cars might actually aid fast food restaurants and make it even easier to get fast food. Indeed, there will likely be added pressure on conventional sit-down restaurants as it becomes easier for the public to opt toward fast food due to AI self-driving cars, and not want to contend with the logistics involved in sit-down eateries.

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?

Copyright 2020 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.

[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:]

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