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Drive-thru
vehicle detection
is shaping the
future of customer
experience

Author: Megan Williams

Technology such as drive-thru vehicle detection is likely to play a key role in the future of the restaurant customer experience. Research by the NPD Group found on-premises visits to quick-service restaurants were 52% below pre-pandemic levels, while off-premises visits (i.e., drive-thru, carry out and delivery) were 16% above pre-pandemic levels. One survey found drive-thru accounted for 52% of QSR orders in August 2021, compared with 42% in January 2020.

However, this growth has not come without its challenges—restaurant drive-thru lanes were slower and less accurate in 2021, according to research by SeeLevel HX. One industry CEO estimated that about 30% of drive-thru customers are driving off, abandoning the wait because the lines are so long. SeeLevel HX found the average total time spent in a drive-thru lane was almost six and a half minutes (or 382 seconds). This was 25 seconds longer than in 2020 and nearly a minute longer than the pre-pandemic average. At the same time, 15% of orders were inaccurate in 2021, compared with 13% in 2020.

To address these issues—as well as labor shortages and supply chain issues—restaurants are increasingly investing in improving their drive-thru ordering systems as well as curbside pickup solutions.

Drive-thru vehicle detection technology

You might have had a drive-thru experience where you arrived at the drive-thru, but no one was there to take your order. Drive-thru vehicle detection technology exists to rectify this. Reducing the amount of time between arrival and order improves customer experience and allows employees to take more orders.

Vehicles have traditionally been detected from one of four technologies to improve drive-thru ordering systems:

  • Inductive loop systems: These measure the change in the field when objects pass over them. So, once a vehicle drives over a loop sensor, the loop field changes, which allows the device to detect the presence of an object. Cables are required between the drive-thru lane and the restaurant.
  • Radar: Wireless sensors use Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave radar to reliably detect moving or stationary targets.
  • Ultrasonic: Wireless sensors use sound waves to detect objects.
  • Magnetometers: A wireless M-GAGE sensor measures the change in the Earth's natural magnetic field caused by the introduction of a ferromagnetic object, such as a vehicle.

The wireless options, benefiting from the lower latency and higher capacity of 4G and 5G networks, can be used to make the most of IoT and multi-access edge computing technology. Any organization making this step will benefit from low-power wide-area technology. Its devices use smaller amounts of data and are more battery efficient and more economical—all while allowing communication over a greater distance than alternatives, such as Bluetooth or near-field communication.

Cable solutions may require pavement and brickwork to be damaged or replaced during installation, maintenance and repairs. This can be costly and/or require closure of the drive-thru lane. On the other hand, wireless options provide the benefit of easier installation and seamless integration with advanced technologies.

Drive-thru vehicle detection and AI

Detection technology can also be combined with powerful AI technology to enhance the customer experience. Cameras monitoring your drive-thru can easily convert footage into data streams for computer vision. This can be analyzed with computer vision models for operational efficiencies and deliver actionable insights to inform decisions. For example, based on real-time and predictive insights into service volumes, you can set customer expectations with notifications of accurate wait times by location.

Driver detection technology

Not only can vehicle detection technology tell you if a vehicle is there, but it can also tell you who is in that vehicle and what they are likely to order, based on previous order history. For customers that opt in, cameras can facilitate license plate, mobile phone or facial recognition technology to identify customers. This can allow for personalization of service in drive-thru ordering systems, including greeting them by name and offering tailored advertisements and promotions based on their persona and ordering preferences. One restaurant in California even uses this technology to allow customers to pay without cash or credit card, provided they have registered in advance with a credit card on file.

Customer service and drive-thru ordering systems

Customers are looking for speed and convenience and care about how long they wait in line—and they are actually a little less patient in their cars than they are inside restaurants. A study of 5,700 customers by Oracle Food and Beverage found that:

  • 64% of drive-thru customers don't want to wait more than five minutes.
  • 55% were "fed up" after five minutes waiting in a drive-through (54% of diners inside got annoyed after 10 minutes).

Vehicle detection technology can help to address concerns such as improving drive-thru speed. Employees are alerted as soon as a vehicle arrives, meaning the order process begins earlier. And when partnered with customer data, detection technology can alert employees to a customer's order history, allowing them to potentially begin preparing food before an order has even been made.

Drive-thru vehicle detection technology directly addresses some of the key customer desires outlined in the QSR magazine's Drive-Thru Study survey. For example, respondents requested:

  • Automated car detection (35%)
  • Personalized deals (33%)
  • Smart menu boards that greet them by name and know their regular order (24%)

As you explore your options in turning technology into results for your customers and employees, know that you have support in navigating the wide range of solutions available. We invite you to step into the future of retail with us as your guide.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.