How Far Can You Drive on Empty?

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Gas lines are currently stretched across New Jersey and other states hit by Hurricane Sandy. If you're struggling to find a place to fill up, you might be asking yourself this very question, which we originally posted last year.

It’s a question that plagues every driver: Just how far can you drive with your car’s “fuel empty” light illuminated? The detailed answer depends on all sorts of variables like the age and model of your car, how much weight you’re carrying, and what kind of driving you’re doing.

The more fun answer is “Find out the hard way!” Justin Davis runs a site called TankOnEmpty.com that lets drivers record just how far they’ve driven certain types of cars after their empty lights came on. You can poke around and see how your car has fared. The results are a little less than scientific, though. Even for a car with a large number of data points, the estimates aren’t super-precise. The Honda Civic, for example, has 248 entries and an average range of 44.38 miles after the light comes on, but the standard deviation of the data is almost 24 miles.

Of course, the major question in play asks when the car’s fuel light comes on in the first place. Sure, driving conditions and number of passengers will affect your car’s range after the light comes on, but if you can pinpoint how much gas is left in the tank when the warning appears, you can at least ballpark what sort of range you’ve got left.

Click and Clack of Car Talk fame have estimated that most cars’ “empty” lights come on once the gas level dips below an eighth of a tank or so, but they have also advocated driving until the light comes on, then immediately stopping to fill all the way up, and then comparing how much fuel your car took with the tank’s capacity published in your owner’s manual. Once you repeat this process a few times, you should have a pretty good estimate of how much gas is left.

If you’re a bit more daring, you can always try the tactic consumer reporter John Stossel employed for a 2008 piece for ABC’s 20/20. Stossel got behind the wheel of his minivan and drove until he ran out of gas. He ended up making it 65 miles after his gas dial claimed the car was empty, including 40 miles after his van’s computerized estimate of its remaining fuel range hit zero.

What about you? Have you ever pushed the limits of your car’s tank, like Cosmo Kramer did on that Seinfeld episode?

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November 1, 2012 - 11:48am
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