In-N-Out Burger lays claim to having opened the first drive-through in 1948, although others claim that Jack in the Box was the first major restaurant specifically designed with a drive through as well as the first to feature a two-way intercom. Some argue that the idea was first floated at the Texas Pig Stand, as far back as 1931. Either way, since the concept was developed in the mid-20th century, the drive-through has remained virtually the same. What could the future hold for this mainstay of the QSR industry?

Industry research shows that customers want better, faster service and QSRs are looking to enhance performance and increase the value of each sale Solving these combined needs will ultimately drive loyalty to a brand and increase return visits. According to the 2018 QSR Drive-Thru Study, conducted in October in the USA, “most major quick serves report about 70 percent of their sales going out the drive-thru window. However, average speed-of-service times – the time between the customer placing his or her order and then receiving it – have largely slowed across the board among the major players. This year’s brands clocked in at an average of 234 seconds, compared with about 225 seconds in 2017.”

In New Zealand, the most innovation the industry has seen is McDonald’s introducing digital screens and dual-lane drive-throughs to aid in speed and capacity, as well as upgrading the speaker and microphone systems. While the company wouldn’t disclose innovations coming in the near future for commercial reasons, spokesperson Simon Kenny said that it was clear that the McDonald’s app and CRM programme will allow for different ways to order, pay and pick up.

“New technologies like voice recognition are also opportunities to continue to enhance the experience our customers receive.”

While McDonald’s is taking steps to ensure that the customer experience is quicker and easier, so far they have done so simply by tweaking existing technologies, rather than introducing anything new.

US-based company 5thru, which promotes itself as “the missing link for in-vehicle customer engagement,” is leading the charge in developing new drive-through technology. Last month it released its innovative Drive-Thru Accelerator technology, which both speeds up and personalises the drive-through experience.

“Everyone loves the convenience of a drive-through, but sometimes we see long lines and think twice,” said 5thru CEO Daniel McCann. “Our Drive-Thru Accelerator technology is changing that perception, resulting in more convenience for consumers and more throughput for busy drive-throughs.”

5thru uses the automotive equivalent of facial recognition. Customers can register their number plate and connect it to a payment option, meaning that the time spent paying for the meal is removed entirely. The pre-scanned vehicle ID system also builds a customer profile, predicting their order and personalising offers and deals for individual customers and increasing the overall value of each purchase.

Conversational AI producers Clinic is also developing an AI-powered restaurant drive-through and in-store kiosk. The system is designed to increase speed and accuracy of order, which Clinic found to be the two biggest complaints from drive-through customers.

“Customers all too often have to repeat their order today with humans. Clinic’s tech beats that,” said Clinic CEO Jason Mars. “Using a completely new type of AI technology we’re redefining the ordering experience and giving consumers convenience and control while getting restaurant service even quicker.”

However, for all the talk of AI and technological advancement, one must look to Sweden for the greatest drive-through innovation where, in 1996, a McDonald’s in the snowy resort town of Lindvallen opened the first – and so far only – ski-through.