Posted on Nov 1, 2011 in Automobiles
Why does the first quarter of a tank of gas seem to last a week — and the last quarter lasts what seems like just a day?
It really makes you feel like a hypermiling super hero when you pull away from the pump with a full tank — then drive 50 miles before the needle even budges. Of course, reality comes crashing down later when the last half of the tank seems to disappear faster than Keystone Light at a frat party.
Eventually this charade leads to frustration and the question, “Ehy can’t these huge auto manufacturers with their multi-million dollar R&D budgets make accurate gas gauges?” Well, here’s the thing — they can. But it seems that’s not what the vast majority of consumers want. Read on.
According to this article, a Ford engineer said “[Customers] want it to stay on full for an amount of time,” thus making you feel like you’re not immediately burning through that $50+ you just dropped in the tank.
According to the same source, the opposite is true as well — empty isn’t really empty anymore, it means you’ve still got some gas left. Apparently customer surveys indicated that, “our customers really didn’t want to run out of fuel when they hit ‘E.’ Customers do want some amount of fuel when they get to ‘E.’” So the joke by a stand-up comic (whose name I have long since forgotten) where his dad always thought that ‘E’ stood for ‘Enough” was, in fact, actually somewhat correct.
There are a few other reasons that first part of the tank seems to last longer than the rest. First of all, if you’re one of those folks that keep squeezing the handle after the pump has shut itself off, thus filling the thing all the way up the filler neck to the gas cap, there are two things going on there. First, it’s not particularly safe — gas in the tank is well protected from damage and spilling in a crash, the filler neck is substantially less protected. Secondly, the gauges are calibrated for the capacity of the tank itself, not the tank plus the half gallon you can squeeze into the filler neck.
Also, with the odd shapes gas tanks are made in these days — for the sake of safety, rear seat and trunk space, weight distribution, and various other reasons — it can be hard to 100% accurately measure how much fuel really is in the tank at any given time. Older cars also tended to use less accurate measuring systems, or they may have degraded in accuracy with age.
In short, there’s no single explanation as to why something so simple as a gas gauge should be so wildly inaccurate at times. The best bet is to, quite honestly, not worry about it — and don’t just assume that every manufacturer gives you a cushion when the gauge hits E. A good rule of thumb is to fill ‘er up when you reach about 1/4 tank.
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