Does “E” really mean “empty?”
Picture driving on a long stretch of freeway at night. There are many miles left until your destination, and you passed the last gas station nearly twenty minutes ago. Even though your gas gauge said there was a quarter of a tank left, you didn’t stop. All you could think about was how tired you are, how you should cover just a bit more ground before having to stop again. Surely, you think, you’ll see another fueling station eventually.
Nearly half an hour later, there’s nothing. You keep one eye on the gas gauge, and you start to panic as the needle creeps toward that “E.” With no choice but to push on, you do.
As scary as this scenario might be, the situation may not be as dire as you think.
When the fuel warning light comes on, the average vehicle has 1-2 gallons left in the tank, wrote Mike Allen of Popular Mechanics. How many miles that converts to depends on the make and model of your car.
“Typically, most cars are manufactured with a level-sensing device, [like] a simple float … that sends the signal to the gas gauge,” says Rex Brown, director of information services at Petroleum Equipment Institute, a trade association whose members manufacture and install the equipment used by gas stations. Brown is a self-described “gearhead” and has worked on cars and motorcycles all his life.
“Some of the newer ones are more of an electronic, fly-by-wire type thing that actually senses it by the liquid touching an electric element inside the gas tank,” Brown says. Both methods read the level of gas in the tank and transfer that to the gauge on the dashboard. “The low fuel light is just simply [a light that], at a certain level that the manufacturer determines, indicates the need for the [light] to come on. Different manufacturers have different theories on when that’s supposed to happen.”
So, how does your car stack up?
This handy chart breaks down the range of miles each of 2015’s top selling cars can drive after the fuel warning light comes on—as well as how much is still in the tank when that happens. If you own a Nissan Altima, congratulations—you can still drive a whopping 81–114 miles after the light comes on. Those with Chevrolet Silverados are on the lowest end, with only 25 miles left after the warning light comes on.
If your car isn’t listed here, Allen of Popular Mechanics provided a simple formula for figuring out how far your car can drive on empty: “Run the car until the light comes on. Fuel up immediately. Look up the fuel tank capacity in the owner’s manual. Subtract the amount it took to fill up from that. That’s how much there is left.”
Even though you might have some mileage left after the warning light comes on…
“You shouldn’t allow your car to get that low on fuel to begin with,” says John Pagano, a St. Louis–area mechanic who has worked on local government cars for almost 40 years. “Your tank is like any other gas tank, so dirt and stuff gets in it. It will start sucking up the dirt particles in your tank and actually harm the engine and the fuel system as it’s going through.”
Pagano also warns that gas gauges aren’t always the most trustworthy. They can bounce between levels or otherwise skew the reading. “I’ve run out of gas myself thinking I got another twenty miles to go, and I may have twenty feet. So they’re not as accurate as you think they are.”
Other Common Car and Gas Misconceptions
Car ownership can be a confusing and complicated endeavor. Misconceptions about how to properly care for and refuel your vehicle practically litter the roads. Here are three common myths:
1. Using cell phones can cause explosions at the pump.
In 1999, an urgent email chain being to circulate the internet. The email warned drivers you should turn off your cell phone when pumping gas. “According to a report released by Shell Chemicals,” the email read, “a driver in Indonesia suffered burns and his car was severely damaged when petrol vapor exploded after being ignited by static electricity from the mobile phone he was using.” Fact-checking resource Snopes couldn’t find any confirmation of the report, and Shell denied making similar warnings attributed to them in 2002.
The year was 2003. My dad faxed me an email he received warning the public about cell phones exploding while pumping gas. Simpler times.
— Rabbit (@vinylrabbit) July 20, 2016
“There’s actually no truth to it that we’ve been able to establish,” Brown says. In fact, PEI looked thoroughly into the the cause of 250 different fueling station fires, eventually releasing a study on their findings. According to Brown, the majority of incidents were caused by “flare-ups.”
“The number one cause of these was a discharge of static electricity,” he says. “Even though cell phones were blamed on two or three occurrences, further investigation proved that to not be the case.”
If you want to avoid igniting gas fumes when you’re filling up, staying outside of your car is the best way to do it. “Typically, [at] wintertime, people get back into the car because it’s cold. When they get back out of the car, that action of rubbing [their] butt across the seat generated static electricity. When they reached for the handle of the pump, it created a spark and set off the fumes that had gathered.”
You can see witness how this happens in the final moments of this video:
2. Red cars are more likely to get speeding tickets.
It’s easy to believe that red cars get more speeding tickets: They’re flashier and more noticeable.
“Several years ago, I had a 1998 Olds’ Delta 88 that … hardly had any miles on it,” says Pagano. “It was red in color, but it was like a medium garnet red. My wife has been driving since she was sixteen and has only been pulled over twice in her life, long ago when she was a kid.”
“We had that car, she got pulled over four times in six months. We got rid of the car because they kept pulling her over.”
Before you head to the dealership to trade in your red car or spend an exorbitant amount of money on a paint job, watch the video below and find out what factors really do get drivers pulled over.
Pagano agrees that it wasn’t solely the Oldsmobile’s color that resulted in his wife getting stopped so often.
“I think it was the age of the car,” he says. “It was a very nice, clean car, but it still was an older car in the area that we lived in.”
3. All gas pumps have locking latches.
If you didn’t know this was a myth, consider yourself lucky.
In some parts of the country, gas pumps come with locking latches that allow drivers to take their hands off the pump when refueling. In other parts, motorists have to hold the handle the entire time.
“A lot of people don’t realize that in different parts of the country, it’s illegal to have the locking latch,” says Brown. “There are certain jurisdictions that don’t allow that hold-open latch to be installed on the gas pumps.”
The problem is that there are varying opinions on whether the practice of removing the latches is actually safer. While it might prevent someone from climbing in and out of the car and generating static electricity, “People have come up with ingenious devices to hold it open … including a Bic lighter, believe it or not.”
u don't realize how convenient that little lock-latch is on a gas pump, until u have to stand there for 6min holding the handle to pump gas
— lish (@klish) April 17, 2011
Unsurprisingly, this practice was one of the causes of the gas station fires PEI investigated.
“It turned out that was what someone had stuck under the lever [of the gas pump],” says Brown. “When the tank got full, it actually turned the flint wheel and created a spark that started a fire.”
Pagano says that the most common mistake he sees the average person make can be solved by being proactive when it comes to car maintenance.
“The thing that people get wrong the most is not checking tire pressure or checking their oil often enough,” he says. “On the newer cars, the light comes on to tell you to service the vehicle soon, and people don’t think they need to check the oil in between that because the light’s going to come on.”
Most service engine lights come on every 5,000 miles or so, but it’s still a good idea to check your oil in between those intervals. “Most vehicles will still use oil, so that interval that is going by is the computer in the car figuring out how many idle hours and miles that you’ve put on it,” says Pagano. “It has built in to it recommend times that you’re supposed to change your oil, but it doesn’t tell you if the oil is getting low.”
The other important thing is to pay attention to the color of your warning lights.
Today's tip – if a red warning light saying stop comes on on your car, it means STOP for a reason. Do not continue to drive it!
— Dave Harford (@dharford79) September 13, 2017
“If your car’s not running really [poorly], when that yellow check engine light comes on, generally you can get it in for service,” Pagano says. “If a red light comes on, any type of red indicator light, that means stop. That means you need to set that car [aside].”
You can’t believe everything you read, but knowing where to turn for reliable sources and having a trusted mechanic can ease some of the anxiety of car ownership. All other issues will just feel like a bump in the road. Metaphorically speaking, of course.