Could Visa's In-Vehicle Payments Bring Back the Carhop?

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Visa In-Car Ordering Demo

BARCELONA - Get out of my screens and into my car. Visa wants to make it possible for you to order food on a heads-up display while driving and then pick it up and pay for it without ever leaving your vehicle. I had a chance to go hands (and steering wheels) on with a demo of the food-ordering process here at Mobile World Congress and was fascinated with what it could mean for the future of retail. Could the old-fashioned drive-in restaurant and its carhop waiters make a comeback?

Working in concert with Pizza Hut, Accenture, an as-yet-unnamed car manufacturer and an unnamed mobile carrier, Visa intends to build a working prototype and test ordering from a real restaurant in the near future. However, for now, the booth had a BMW convertible with a tablet embedded in its dashboard, rather than a real car infotainment system. There's no indication that BMW is the partner or that the sample car will be a convertible.

I sat down in the car and touched a button on the screen for Pizza Hut. I was then presented with a list of three local Pizza Huts on a map and given the opportunity to tap the one I wished to order from.

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The software gave me three options: Past Orders, Store Menu or Call Store. I selected Store Menu and was immediately greeted with a warning prompt telling me that this function can't be accessed while driving. An Accenture company rep explained that, due to transportation safety laws in the U.S., the software might even have to block me entirely from using certain visual features if the car is in drive and it thinks I'm by myself.

After I hit OK to move past the warning prompt, I chose a menu item from the list and was immediately transported to a shopping cart stream with a picture of my Visa card and a Place Order button. After hitting the button, the software showed me a map with turn-by-turn directions to the restaurant and a confirmation message informing me that my order would be ready in 10 minutes.

At this point in real life, I would spend a few minutes driving to the restaurant and pulling into a specially marked parking space with a Bluetooth beacon next to it. When my car detects the beacon, it submits payment to the beacon via Visa Checkout, the company's secure payment system. Since I was just doing a demo, the software assumed I had paid and skipped right away to a "thank you" screen, which also displayed a loyalty card showing how many times I had bought pizza before.

When this process happens at an actual Pizza Hut, the payments will be submitted using tokenization, a process where merchants don't see a customer's actual credit card number, instead receiving a unique, limited-use authorization code. These tokens only work at that particular merchant and expire after a time period set by the merchant (one-time, a day, a month, etc). So, if the data is intercepted or stolen, criminals would have a hard time using it.

At the same time my car was submitting its token to the Bluetooth beacon, it would also pass along my name and the VIN number of my car. Staff inside the store would then get a message that I was waiting outside in a particular parking space and that, based on my VIN, I was driving a particular make and model of car. An attendant would then bring the order right up to my car window and thank me by name.

Though the technology behind the secure, wireless car ordering and payments is interesting, I'm even more intrigued by the new retail business models "drive-by" shopping could create. In the 1950s, many people ate at drive-ins where waiters walked right up to their windows to take their orders, deliver food and accept payment. Could this type of restaurant see a resurgence now that you can order and pay before you even roll down your window?

What about convenience stores, supermarkets and pharmacies? How great would it be to order a refill of your prescription, pull into the drug store parking lot and have someone bring the medicine out to you? With highly secure mobile payments, a new kind of service is possible, provided that merchants are willing to send their employees out to the parking lot. We'll just have to see if it catches on.