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America loves drive-thrus more than ever. But AI may now be taking your order.

America boasts an estimated 200,000 drive-thrus nationwide.
America boasts an estimated 200,000 drive-thrus nationwide.

Drive-thrus are a quintessentially American phenomenon. The first was in the U.S. and they spread quickly nationwide in the mid-20th century due to the rise of car culture and the highway system.

Now, estimates suggest there are around 200,000 drive-thrus across the country. They grew in popularity during the pandemic. At White Castle, drive-thru orders accounted for about 70 percent of sales pre-lockdown. Now, they account for about 80 percent.

Drive-thrus have a history of innovation. The first two-way speaker was invented by the founder of In-N-Out Burger. That trend continues to this day. Fast food companies are experimenting with new technology at their fast food windows, like AI chatbots or elevator food delivery systems that cut out human-to-human interaction.

Drive-thrus also offer more than just fast food. Drive-thru funeral homes, banks, and convenience stores save people the step of getting out of their cars.

How did America invent the drive-thru and why does it keep pulling up for more? We talk about the climate, culture, tech, health, labor, politics and history stories behind the drive-thru window.


Copyright 2023 WAMU 88.5

Avery Jessa Chapnick