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How Long Can You Drive on Empty?

Stephen Fogel
December 17, 2018

If the needle on your gas gauge is dropping below E, or the low fuel light has come on, you might have a few questions. Where’s the next gas station? What if I get stuck? Didn't this happen in a "Seinfeld" episode? And how long can I drive on empty?

The cheeky answer to that last one is: Until you run out of gas. So, perhaps the question should really be: How long can you drive on empty without running out of gas? That gets a little more complicated.

Every fuel tank is different

Every vehicle has a different amount of “fuel reserve.” This is the amount of fuel left in the tank when the low fuel light comes on. The exact amount of remaining fuel will vary by manufacturer and tank size. It can range from less than a gallon in a small car to as much as four gallons in some large pickups and SUVs. Check your owner’s manual to find yours.

That low fuel light is intended to be a reminder not to drive much farther without refilling. Some vehicles also have a “miles to empty” reading on the display. But this isn’t always trustworthy, because it’s based on an average of your previous driving data.  

Fuel gauges aren’t very accurate

The way your gas gauge tracks your fuel usage is more about psychology than accurate readings. Studies have shown that drivers like the gauge to remain at the full mark for a while after a fill-up, to help them believe that they're getting good fuel economy, right after spending a lot on a tank of gas. This is why the needle stays at the full mark until you have used the first two or three gallons. 

These same studies have also demonstrated that consumers want to have some fuel remaining in their tanks after the needle reaches the empty mark. Carmakers have complied on both points, which means the gauge is more of an estimate than an exact tool.

Your driving style matters

How much time you have once the gauge hits empty depends in part on your driving style. Some drivers are very gentle on the gas, and others like to accelerate quickly from light to light. Some cruise at the speed limit on the highway, and others like to do 15 MPH over. 

In the same compact car with the same two-gallon reserve when the low fuel light comes on, the gentle driver might be able to go 60 miles on the highway, while the lead-footed cruiser might last just 45.

Other factors play a part

In addition to your driving style, there are other elements that can affect your fuel economy. Consider these things when estimating how far you think you can get:

  • Winds and slippery surfaces reduce MPG
  • Lack of regular maintenance cuts MPG
  • A heavy passenger or cargo load will hamper fuel economy
  • Underinflated tires will limit your range
  • Hilly areas and winding roads reduce MPG

Downsides to running out of gas

The good news is you have a little time to fill up once your gauge reads empty. But waiting too long and running out of gas is a very bad idea.

Your car could stall out: If you run out of gas while cruising on a busy highway, you could be struck by the car driving behind you, or you might get hit while you try to get to the shoulder. Or you could be stranded in an isolated area, or in bad weather. Risking your life is simply not worth it.

Your car could be damaged: The fuel pump is responsible for sending gas to the engine. When you run out of gas, this deprives the pump of the fuel it needs to operate properly. This is comparable to running your engine without oil or coolant. The result can be overheating of the fuel pump, which can stress and ultimately damage the pump, requiring an expensive replacement

If you must drive with a low tank

It’s not something you should make a habit of, but many drivers will find themselves in a low-fuel situation at some point. With that in mind, here are some strategies for maximizing your fuel:

  • Keep your tires properly inflated
  • Close all the windows for less aerodynamic drag
  • Turn off the air conditioner, stereo and all other accessories, including phone chargers
  • Accelerate and brake gently, as much as possible
  • Try to maintain a steady speed of around 40 MPH, if conditions permit
  • Stop and refuel at the first gas station you find, no matter the price 
Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

8 User Comments

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By , September 17, 2012
I learned the hard way by nickel & dimeing my gas, burn't the fuel pump.
By , October 02, 2012
I had no idea I was going to run out of gas. My fuel sensor gauge evidently went first. But didn't really figure that out until I had to replace the fuel pump.
By , August 24, 2013
I've also heard that driving on low fuel can damage the fuel injectors for the same reason that it will damage the fuel pump,.......lack of lubrication.It is silly to risk it, unless of course you have a large bank account and you are always itching to spend money.
By , September 07, 2013
my friend always drives with is needle on gas light when spoken to he say nothing is wrong even through he put a little gas in the the needle is always on gas light.
By , January 11, 2014
I finally suggest getting some gas. What does she do? Laugh and then drive further
By , April 12, 2014
I learned from my auto repair teacher, that when the needle is on empty there is about 2 gallons left,
By , September 02, 2015
It can damage all components of your fuel system
By , February 18, 2016
i would try milesaftergaslight.com as well, it's a website that shows you how to calculate the miles you have left when the gas light comes on for any car. just plug in your cars numbers and it even calculates it for you