The McDonald's at Braker Ln. and 183 in Austin, TX - conveniently located down the street from the BMC office - just expanded their drive-thru line to include two separate lanes.
There is an inside lane and an outside lane for placing orders, then the two lanes merge back into one for payment and order pickup. Which begged the question (for a small yet inquisitive brain like mine): How do they know which order is mine since they don't know the order in which the traffic from the two lanes has merged?
So I asked. Not once, but twice. The first time, I asked a gentleman at the payment window. "We take your picture when you place your order," he said, quoted loosely. "Then I can see the pictures on my register and match you to your order."
Wow. Could this be true? I posted a question on Yahoo Answers to see if a McDonald's employee would verify. Arguments ensued, since apparently some McDonald's have this technology and others do not. So I asked again the next time I paid for my order. The young cashier said, "We take a picture of your car."
Confirmation. It might not be a picture of your pearly whites, but they are at least snapping a shot of the front of your car. I won't ask the question of how they tell the difference between 5 identical Ford F350's here in Texas, but presumably the photo captures a bit of the driver or passenger as well.
Which gets me all sorts of excited about the technology possibilities. Here's what I am thinking:
They should capture your license plate. Easier done in states where a front plate is required, but still possible to snap a rear shot as you pull away from the order kiosk. Why? Your license plate is a unique identifier. Technology in place by police departments, toll road authorities, etc. is so advanced at license plate recognition that you don't even need someone to manually decode the plate; software will analyze the photograph and convert the letters and numbers to text.
So what then?
They could create a massive database that tracks order history by license plate. Not very useful for historical analysis, I agree. But VERY useful for what I will call predictive ordering and assembly. If the same car goes through the drive-thru every day and orders a large coffee and a hash brown, and the order never varies, you can predict that they will order another large coffee and a hashbrown before they even order it. Do you pull the order before they place it? Maybe not. But on very busy days, the system could help better forecast what inventory to have prepared or assembled.
Additionally, they would be better armed to upsell. Asking me if I want an apple pie after I place my order - when I have NEVER ordered an apple pie in my entire life - is pointless. But if they know I have a weakness for hot fudge sundaes, asking me if I would like to add one of those has a much better chance of getting my dollar. They could also encourage loyalty by triggering discounts automatically for frequent visitors.
They could partner with social media apps like Foursquare or Gowalla. By allowing you to enter your license plate number in your profile settings (kept private, of course), they could automatically "check you in" when you drive-thru locations that have the recognition technology enabled.
Maybe some of this is scary. Maybe it's unneeded and not valuable to McDonald's. From my take, if they are going to take pictures for every customer that drives thru, they should figure out how to monetize the data.
How else could they use your picture? How do you feel about them taking it?