Driving on Empty: Safe Ways to Figure Out How Far You Can Drive

DEC 12, 2018

Driving on Empty: Safe Ways to Figure Out How Far You Can Drive -
It is quite typical for both American and European drivers to ignore the helpful warning lights, strongly hinting at a low fuel level. Don’t believe this? Well, have a look at a survey conducted by the American Automobile Association (now known as AAA), which shows that 24 million US motorists go on driving even when warned about running out of fuel.

It is quite typical for both American and European drivers to ignore the helpful warning lights, strongly hinting at a low fuel level. Don’t believe this? Well, have a look at a survey conducted by the American Automobile Association (now known as AAA), which shows that 24 million US motorists go on driving even when warned about running out of fuel. That’s about 11 percent of all operators in the country, and it is almost twice as much as, for example, UK’s figures. Another survey carried out by an insurance company reveals that about 2 million UK motorists (5 percent) drive on the empty tanks quite regularly. And (what a surprise!) almost a million of them end up running out of fuel and needing to call for help. The same survey shows that 25 percent of motorists genuinely believe they can run at least 40 miles after the fuel gauge reads empty. Is there any truth to this?

Don’t Panic; Reserve Fuel Will Save Us All         

For a novice driver, the gas lights coming on can be really scary. Nobody wants to break down in the middle of a busy highway or miles from nowhere. And that’s why, among other reasons, it is strongly recommended that you keep your gas tank at least ¼ full. However, you may overlook the potential problem or be pressed for time or just go to extremes with money saving (yes, many drivers fail to fill their vehicles in a timely manner because they are looking for cheaper gas). Whichever reason is yours, car manufacturers have anticipated it and provided a small fuel reserve in your car.          

So, the fact is that even if your fuel light is on and onboard computer is reporting that the gas level in the tank has reached its minimum, you can rely on this fuel reserve and drive some extra miles until the car is completely out of fuel. But the question is how many miles you can run and where can you get to, having only this reserve? You must admit that accurate information can be critical in this case since you need to plan ahead – whether you need to immediately start searching for the nearest gas station or you will be able to make it out to your destination. It sucks to find out that you have made the wrong choice and got trapped within a few miles of a filling station. Actually, this is quite a common scenario because it is not easy to figure out the reserve. Let’s learn how you can make it.

How Far Can You Drive on Empty?

At the first blush, it’s not a big deal to find out how much fuel there is left in your tank after the low gas light is on. All you need to do is take your car manual and check the specifications as to the fuel tank volume and the amount of reserve fuel. Yes, this reminds us again how useful it may be to read those manuals. Indeed, automakers tend to specify the size of reserve tanks somewhere just next to the tank volume, so you can find it easily. After learning the figures, you can calculate the distance you are likely to cover on empty, factoring in your average fuel consumption over the last 30-40 miles. For example, if the manual reads the reserve makes up 3 gallons and your mileage is 35 mpg, it is clear that you have enough gas to travel another 90-95 miles.  

Some lucky car owners don’t even need to calculate the distance since the manufacturers took the trouble to specify it in the manual instead of giving only the size of the reserve. For example, Dacia Sandero’s specification says clearly that you can drive another 30 miles from the moment the low fuel light is on.

Though Dacia is a rare find in the US market, there are quite a number of more popular models equipped with onboard computers to tell you how many miles you can drive with the indicator needle below the "empty" line. However, you shouldn’t naïve enough to put your full faith on the electronics – the indications are rather rough, while your real fuel distance will depend on many factors like your driving style and road conditions among others. You see, your trip computer makes the calculations based on your average mileage, but we know that it varies significantly for highway, rough terrain travel, and city driving. So, when your fuel gauge reads 20 miles, it can be 40 miles on a highway or 10 miles in a traffic jam.    

Besides, your car may have no digital read-out, and this is quite typical for older and cheaper vehicles. Moreover, it may have no information about the size of the reserve in the manual! Unfortunately, some automakers are rather secretive about the distance-to-really-empty, and the most they can give to a driver is something like "if the warning light turns on and does not turn off, it is necessary to fuel the tank." Thanks for this helpful information, guys!

When Manuals Keep Mum

All jokes aside, how can you know when your tank is going to become ultimately empty and your car is going to stop? Sad to say, global automakers don’t have any common standards as to the fuel reserve, and therefore it differs not only in terms of makes and models, but even depending on vehicle manufacture years. And this means that the fuel distance for different cars varies from 1.3 to 3 gallons, which makes a big difference, especially when you are somewhere in the middle of a desert in Nevada in the height of summer or hitting a snowy road in Ohio in the dead of winter.     

Fortunately for us, we are not the first ones to wonder how far we can run on empty. Auto enthusiasts around the world have been exploring the topic for quite some time now, collecting data for various makes and models. It seems that the average size of fuel reserve makes up 10-15 percent of the fuel tank volume indicated in car specifications. So, unless otherwise specified in your vehicle manual, you can proceed from these figures in order to calculate how much gasoline there is left in the reserve tank.

But these are not exact numbers, aren’t they? Well, luckily, we can get more accurate information thanks to the research performed by YourMechanic website team. They offer a nice chart, reviewing 50 US best-selling cars with the reserve sizes in gallons and miles you can cover after the needle reaches this terrible "Е" level. If you own one of these vehicles, you can be guided by their data.

And what if your vehicle is not among those described in the chart? Then you need to go to the TankOnEmpty website to search for a specific car. This web resource was launched by computer programmer Justin Davis about 10 years ago, after his attempt to travel from Canada to the United States with a near-empty tank – he wanted to get to a US gasoline station for cheaper fuel since gas in Canada costs twice as much. By now, thousands of motorists have joined his initiative, sharing their data and trip stories (and many of them are really fun and helpful). Thus, you can search for your make and model on the website and get stats on the fuel distance together with real-life experience from other owners. Though the website makes no claims as to the accuracy of data published, it’s a nice chance to get an idea of your vehicle’s potential in a variety of conditions. But what are those conditions?

There are a couple of factors you need to keep in mind when taking stock:

  • SUVs, offroaders, and other big vehicles have larger reserves compared to sedans, but they consume more fuel as well, so it is not smart to expect any benefits from the larger reserve tank.
  • Subcompact cars are the most ungenerous and rarely offer more than 1.5 gallons to drag on.
  • Older vehicles tend to consume more gasoline due to the wear and tear of various parts and systems. Therefore, a new car is likely to travel more miles than the same model with greater mileage.

How To Add Miles When Your Tank Is Near Empty

Well, let us say that you know your reserve and how far it can get you, at least approximately. Is there anything you can do to help your car run longer in order to avoid the worst-case (i.e., stalling) scenario? This is exactly the right time for recollecting everything you have ever learned about fuel economy. There are some of your do’s and don’ts:

  • Avoid quick starts and sudden brakes, since this sharp driving style boosts fuel consumption. Plan ahead and work on your gas and brake pedals smoothly.
  • Control your speed, because in most vehicles the gas consumption increases at speeds over 60 mph. It’s just the case when slow but steady wins the race.
  • Take advantage of cruise control, if any. Since the system is designed to maintain a steady speed, it is your best friend, when your car is running out of gas.
  • Also, don’t miss a chance to get help from Eco modes and other built-in fuel-saving tools available in your car.  
  • If possible, close your windows to improve the vehicle’s aerodynamics and turn off your HVAC system to save some power.
  • Don’t sacrifice headlamp light, when this affects the safety of driving.

Now, what is the strongest piece of advice you should get out of this article? No, it’s not about driving on empty – you can travel up to 100 miles with the warning light on, but you really shouldn’t. What does your driver handbook say about improper driving behavior? If you can’t remember, check for your local handbook or take a practice test to refresh your memory. But we will give you a tip – driving when running out of gas is a bad idea, so check the fuel level and fill your vehicle when needed.