Don't Rely on the 'Miles-to-Empty' Indicator on Your Car

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Most of us have been there. You forgot to put in gas for your car, and your fuel gauge is hovering close to empty. Many drivers wonder how far you can go with the fuel light on.
If the “miles-to-empty” warning says you have 15 miles left before you run out, can you actually rely on this estimate? According to AAA, it might be risky to rely on those displays, especially considering running out of gas could put you in danger or even cause an accident.

Why shouldn’t you rely on ‘miles-to-empty’ warnings?

Close-up image of low fuel lamp on dashboard in car.
Drivers should be more careful about when they refuel
As reported by ABC13, AAA researchers found that the estimates of “miles-to-empty” and similar systems vary based on several factors.
According to an AAA survey, 74% of drivers use the “miles-to-empty” display to decide when to fill up. You want to get the most out of a tank of gas, and many drivers wait to refuel when gas prices are lower. On average, the display system has a low error rate of 2.3% compared to the gas measured by the dynamometer.
However, when you compare individual vehicles, the rate of error ranged from -6.4% to 2.8%. This means one test vehicle overestimated the miles remaining by 6.4% and the other underestimated it by 2.8%.

What makes fuel economy estimates potentially inaccurate?

The differences in estimates are caused by things like driving style and conditions. For example, the accuracy of the display may change depending on if you’re cruising on the highway or stuck in city traffic.
McKernan, manager of the AAA Automotive Research Center, said that “Collectively, the systems we tested were relatively accurate, but a closer examination of different driving scenarios revealed significant variability based on changes in speed, acceleration, and distance.”

What is the ‘miles-to-empty’ tool most useful for?

McKernan said a vehicle’s fuel economy display is still important for understanding how different driving styles impact fuel efficiency.
Instead of relying on the “miles-to-empty” warning, as a rule of thumb, drivers should fill up when their gas gauge reaches a quarter of the tank. AAA also said that drivers should reset their vehicle’s trip data after filling up to see how their display changes as driving conditions change.
This can give you a better understanding of your vehicle’s fuel economy and how many miles you can expect to go before needing to refuel. It’s not worth the safety hazard to drive on a near-empty tank.
You don’t want to come to a sudden stop on a busy road because you ran out of gas. It’s best not to test the limits of your gas tank. If an unexpected accident happens, you’ll also want to make sure you’re protected ahead of time by having the right car insurance.
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