How Far Can You Drive On Empty?

One of the worst feelings ever is being late to an important meeting or event and having that dreaded low fuel light turn on. You immediately start to think, how far can you drive on empty, will I make it to my meeting before running out, or will I end up missing the meeting because I am sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. 

Or worse yet, your husband/wife having to rescue you with a full jerry can scolding you because you always have to push the limits. 

I think we can all admit that we have tempted fate at least once on a road trip with a low fuel light. As you drove you may have wondered how far you can really go on an empty tank, I have never run out before.

What does the fuel warning light mean?

The fuel warning light is a lamp in the dash that illuminates to keep people like me from running out of gas. If you are not monitoring your fuel level gauge the lamp is an indicator to make sure you are aware that you are close to running out of fuel. 

The fuel warning light will illuminate when there is a certain amount of fuel remaining in your fuel tank. The amount will vary from vehicle to vehicle but is generally between 10-15%.

When the fuel level sensor in your fuel tank senses that the fuel remaining in your fuel tank is in this range it will send a message to a module in your vehicle. This will then send a message to your dash to turn on the light to light up. 

It is a fairly simple system, however it keeps people like me from running out of fuel. So, thank you designers, I appreciate it. 

How far can my car go when it is empty?

As we learned above, when the fuel light comes on it means that there is 10-15% fuel left in the tank. How far you can drive after this depends on the vehicle you are driving and the capacity of your fuel tank.

Some vehicles have a very large fuel tank, while others fuel tanks are very small. A good guideline of distance that you can get is when your fuel tank is empty is between 30-100 miles. While this number does vary greatly, I personally would recommend going as few miles as possible before filling up. 

Do not tempt fate by listening to someone’s opinion on how far you should be able to drive. 

The fuel tank’s design is not the only thing that will affect how far you can drive when the tank is empty. Driving conditions will change the distance you can drive by a lot. If you are in hilly or mountainous terrain, the distance you can drive will be reduced as you consume more fuel in these conditions. 

While driving in the flat terrain of the midwest may increase the distance you can drive. Hard acceleration and speeding can also reduce the distance that you can drive when the fuel light comes on and your fuel gauge shows empty. 

What do I do if I run out of fuel?

If your vehicle does run out of fuel, do not panic. There are a few things that are going to happen to your vehicle when the engine stops because it ran out of fuel. 

The first thing that you will notice is your power steering is not going to work. You will notice this because when you turn the steering wheel it will be hard to turn. Your brakes will be okay for one or two applications so you need to plan what you are going to do. 

When it is safe you need to pull to the side of the road being aware that the steering and brakes may be hard. Once you are off the road, stop the vehicle, and engage the four ways. Only exit the vehicle if it is safe to do so, on a busy highway with no way to exit the highway the safest place for you to be is in your car.

Once you are safely stopped you will need to call a tow truck to get them to come and fill your vehicle up with fuel. Yes, this is a service that they provide. Not only do they tow vehicles, they boost dead batteries, fill empty fuel tanks, and open vehicles that have had the keys locked inside of them. 

How to calculate the maximum distance you can drive on empty

With some easy math you can quickly calculate how far you can drive when your vehicle is empty. Personally I would not suggest this, however let’s take a look and see if we can calculate the maximum distance you can drive on empty. 

First you are going to need to know what your average fuel economy is. This will need to be the fuel economy that you are getting while driving the vehicle and not the posted fuel economy of the vehicle. This can be found by calculating the value or easier, if your vehicle has an average fuel economy setting in the dash use that. 

You will then need to find out how much fuel is remaining in your fuel tank when the low fuel light comes on. I am not sure how you can find this exact value but I would recommend contacting your local manufacturers dealer. They should have the most accurate number. 

Lets assume that your vehicle gets 22 mpg and the amount of fuel that is left in your tank when the low fuel light comes on is 2 gallons. 

Maximum Distance =  MPG x fuel remaining when light comes on

                              =  22 x 2

                  =  44 miles

So 44 miles is how far you can drive on empty with these numbers. Again this is a rough estimate so use at your own risk. 

Risks of driving on an empty fuel tank

Everyone seems to enjoy trying to push the limits when it comes to driving with the fuel light on, possibly even turning it into a challenge. However what many do not realize is that it can cause damage to your vehicle and possibly even personal risk 

It is not always worth the risk to find out how far you can drive on empty. 

Damage the fuel pump

If you drive a lot with your fuel tank low it can cause damage to your fuel pump. The fuel pump inside of your fuel tank creates heat when it is working. The fuel that is inside of the fuel tank is designed to cool the fuel pump and prevent it from overheating. 

If you drive the vehicle often, the fuel pump can overheat which will cause internal damage. Over time this damage may result in your fuel pump not working and leaving you stranded. 

Getting stranded

This is probably the worst risk of driving with an empty fuel tank. Depending on the time of day or season, it can be very dangerous to run out of fuel.

Just imagine, a cold winter night driving down a desolate road. If you run out of fuel, you can not keep the engine running and heat on to keep you warm. This can lead to dangerous conditions very quickly if you have no way of contacting help to come and rescue you. 

I always recommend keeping your fuel tank as full as possible in the winter or driving on desolate roads. 


How can I make fuel last longer?

The easiest way to make your fuel last longer is by increasing your fuel economy. Avoid hard acceleration when taking off and glide to a stop. Use your cruise control and always travel below the speed limit. Check out this guide on saving money and increasing your fuel economy. 

How to tell if my car’s fuel tank is empty?

It is hard to know exactly when your fuel tank is empty. You can use a tool to tap the side of the tank to see if it “sounds” empty. Depending on the design of the fuel tank, there may always be small amounts of fuel inside of the tank at all times. Even though this fuel is present it is not available for the fuel pump and will not be burned in the engine.

Staff Writer
Staff Writer
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