We’ve already seen McDonald’s push for more touchscreen kiosks in stores. Now one restaurant in Chicago is being used to test robot fryers and a drive-thru that uses voice-recognition rather than people. From the Wall Street Journal:

The company is testing voice-recognition software at a drive-through in suburban Chicago. Inside the restaurant, a robot also tosses chicken, fish and fries into vats of oil. Both technologies are meant to shorten customer wait times that executives acknowledge have grown in recent years. McDonald’s also has stopped serving some burgers and given franchisees more control over their menus recently to simplify operations.

McDonald’s is working to speed up service as it faces tough competition from smaller burger chains and declining fast-food traffic in the U.S. overall. Visits to U.S. fast-food burger restaurants fell 1% during the first three months of this year, according to research firm NPD Group Inc…

Other fast-food chains are also exploring automation to quicken operations and cut costs in an expensive labor market. Minimum wages are rising in many states, and unemployment is at record lows. More than one-third of restaurant operators are struggling to fill open jobs, according to a survey conducted in April by the National Restaurant Association.

McDonald’s will be testing the automated drive-thru at more restaurants soon. The company claims this is all about making things easier on its workers. From Restaurant Business Online:

Critics—as well as many of the chain’s proponents—have argued that the addition of automation could eliminate jobs as more states and local areas hike the minimum wage. But McDonald’s said the effort on its kitchens is designed to “make McDonald’s restaurants even better places to work.”

And the company argues that more automation would free up workers for increased customer interaction, something McDonald’s has been working on already with the addition of in-restaurant kiosks at its U.S. locations. Many of those locations also provide table service.

No doubt this will simplify things for workers. It will also likely mean the restaurant requires fewer of them to operate in the long run. About 70% of the company’s business is drive-thru, so replacing order-takers with machines probably means fewer of them will be needed. What McDonald’s hasn’t tested yet, so far as we know, is automated burger cooking. One burger restaurant in Los Angeles has already started that. It’s not quite here yet but it’s clearly on the horizon.

In the long run, this move makes a lot of sense for McDonald’s and not just because the cost of labor is rising. From the start, this was a chain based on applying assembly-line techniques to produce a simple menu quickly and at a low price. But assembly lines have changed quite a bit since the 1950s. If computer automation allows McDonald’s to take the next step, i.e. making food service faster than competitors while keeping prices down, then that seems like something that was part of the chain’s DNA from the start.

That said, there are a lot of jobs at fast food restaurants around the country. A lot of people work at those jobs in high school or college and it’s their first taste of working life. I’m not sure what happens to all those new workers when most of those positions have been replaced by machines.