With gas as expensive as the hand-crafted saffron water and human growth hormone lotion I order from the Dark Web to keep me looking young and glistening, making my skin look like a nectarine slathered in Astroglide, we’ve all likely been looking at our fuel gauges a lot more than normal. And this has got many of us thinking about the fuel gauges themselves, specifically, what’s the best way to mark a fuel gauge? This is one of those things you’d think the auto industry would have standardized upon after well over a century of mass automobile production, but that’s not the case. At all. So, let’s distill the main kinds down into categories, and try to figure out which we like best. This is important.
I know people have been thinking about this, because we at The Autopian were awoken by the incredibly loud klaxon and flashing, caged red light that goes off whenever we’re tagged on Twitter. People are discussing fuel gauge notation, and they want us involved, and this is not something I can say no to.
I’ve tried to distill down the variety of fuel gauges into six main categories; I know there will be some outliers, which I’ve covered here before, or on the Old Site, so if there’s a hyper-specific variant I’ve missed, please know this was not a personal slight, at least not one I’m admitting publicly, but I’m pretty certain You Know What You Did.
To get the basic categories, I’m starting with a very basic analog fuel gauge, one that uses the minimum of three notated points on the semicircular dial: one to indicate a full tank of fuel, one to indicate a half tank, and one to indicate an empty vessel, devoid of fuel, and, perhaps, hope.
Okay, so, let’s see what these common categories are:
The first is extremely common, especially on American cars, which is why I’ve named it American Iron. I also called it American Iron because the chemical symbol for iron is Fe, and “F” and “E” are the letters here, so I’m feeling pretty flapjacking smug about myself right now, with that little hidden periodic table easter egg. You’re welcome.
So, in this version, F means Full, E means Empty, and a conventional 1/2 fraction is used to indicate the middle state. This is generally pretty quickly understandable, but it does require a knowledge of English, which may not be spoken or read by the driver, possibly requiring localized versions, which costs money.
Still, this one is kind of the iconic example of a fuel gauge.
The Teutonic Basic is named so because it seems to show up mostly on German cars. My old VW Beetle uses one like this, for example, but there’s plenty others. The notable traits about this type is the use of the 1/1 notation for full, or, maybe more accurately here, “whole,” and then 1/2 for half, and, most confusingly to the uninitiated, R for empty.
The reason for R that I had always heard was that it means “reserve,” suggesting you’re in an emergency reserve fuel supply, something that was literally the case with pre-1962 VW Beetles, which had a reserve fuel tank, with one gallon capacity, instead of a fuel gauge:
These have a certain sense of precision to them because of the very math-rational-like 1/1 full notation, but that R is pretty confusing to a lot of people who have never dealt with the concept of a reserve fuel tank. Still, some people may prefer the idea of being in “reserve” as opposed to “empty,” as one is a warning and one is a state where you’re already boned. Sort of.
Teutonic Unreduced is basically like Teutonic, but for reasons I’m can only guess at, the fractions have not been reduced, and usually have a denominator of 4. So, we have 4/4 for full, 2/4 for half, then our friend R again for empty. Perhaps some use 0/4? It seems R is more common, though.
The Binary category shuns vague and language-localized letters in favor of the international language of math. Here 1 is full – though 1 may be expressed as a fraction, like 1/1 or 4/4 – and empty is just 0. The halfway point is either 1/2 or sometimes 2/4, and how this is used seems pretty random. For example, you’d think if you started with 4/4 for your whole, you’d keep the 4 denominator for half but look:
Anybody else’s gas gauge have this craziness to indicate a full tank?
It’s my Triumph Spitfire. Btw.@JasonTorchinsky ?@the_autopian pic.twitter.com/J5jhpCUyuQ
— Sid Bridge (@SidBridgeComedy) June 21, 2022
4/4, then 1/2. It’s weird. I’m really wondering if anyone uses 8/8 or 16/16 or something that maybe reflects the actual number of gallons the tank holds, so we could get bonkers gauges like 13/13 and 6.5/13 and 0.
I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fuel gauge that uses decimals instead of fractions, but I just felt like that should be an option here. It somehow seems to fit if you really want to commit to the 1 to 0 scale, right?
I like this kind, because it neatly circumvents any issues with language or math or literacy at all, relying on simple, easily understandable pictograms. Now, really, any shape could be used here, little squares or rectangles or stars or whatever, as long as one is filled, one half-filled, and one empty. But it’s almost always little balls.
The balls tend to resemble those Harvey Balls, the hilariously-named symbols used by Consumer Reports magazine for their ratings:
Hey, here’s a weird coincidence: another famous simple round symbol, the smiley face, was invented by a designer named Harvey Ball. What the hell, reality? You couldn’t have picked another name? This is almost as bad as the fact that there’s the Levi-Strauss anthropologist and the Levi Strauss blue jeans guy, or Armand Hammer and Arm and Hammer baking soda. It’s just weird.
Okay, so I think these are the most common categories out there, and I bet you have preferences, so let’s see what they are, with the magic of a poll!
Finally, we’ll know! Once we have the results, I’ll hand-deliver them to the King President of Automobiles and they’ll make sure that all carmakers use the winner going forward, as well as retrofitting every single car on the road, at the cost of, likely, billions.
Anything is better than the dots Nissan used on the 350z. I like a sweeping gauge, not just a dot that can disappear at any minute at an unknown rate.
For some reason, seeing the fraction “1/1” is irritating to me. It is just too technical. We all know what “1” means if it is at the opposite end of “0” on the gauge. “4/4” is even worse because it seems like they are trying to be more precise, but if it is not tied to actual capacity, it is no better than “1/1”.
It was a tough choice between American Iron and Symbolic, but taking off my American lenses, Symbolic seems best for everyone. Although, I will argue with Jason on the whole issue of always having to print “E” and “F” in different languages. I have ridden in many cars in several countries and have noticed that English is pretty universal in cars wherever I have been.
How could you possibly leave out the BMW gauge that has indicators at each 1/6? Haha I’m not sure exactly what vehicles it’s on, but the F83 M4 has dashes at each 1/6 with numbers of 0, 1/2, and 1.
I vote for symbolic (with the corrected half-full symbol). I’m so grateful for symbols when travelling in other countries and we Americans have ignored the rest of the world for way too long.
My C-HR hybrid rental this week in Belgium had the teutonic gauge with 1/1 and R.
I actually read all of the remarks to be sure that I wasn’t the only person to have noted a flaw in the initial set-up of the exercise. We are directed to assume that the letter “R” somehow means “Empty” in German. Nothing could be more wrong! It stands for “Reserve” a perfectly good German word.
From this first error it was further extrapolated to mean that “Reserve” is the same as “Empty”. It is not. It is exactly what it purports to be, a Reserve of a part of the whole.
When your fuel gauge tells you that it has arrived at “R” it is telling you that you have arrived at your reserve. This is further demonstrated by every one of the gauges depicted by a portion of the ark being thicker in width and colored bright red.
This Is All I’m Gonna Say About This!
I loved the fuel gauge in my 1980 280ZX. It had the typical sweep from full to empty and then below that was a separate gauge for the final quarter tank.
Also, more important than how the levels are labeled, can we all agree that the greatest innovation in fuel gauges was the addition of the little arrow to show you which side of the car the cap is on? As someone who has driven a ton of rental cars this tiny detail has made a huge difference in my quality of life and mental health.
You forgot about the “Hamm’s Puzzler”:
My ’76 BMW has lines that are not evenly spaced to compensate for the small variability in the shape of the tank. Germans!!
Conversely, my ’64 Corvair has an inverted pyramid for a tank and evenly spaced gauge lines. Consequently, 3/4 is actually 1/2, 1/2 is actually 1/4, and 1/4 is the reserve.
And the German gauge reads V for Voll (full in German) and R for Reserve (empty).
We’re still missing one gauge on the list, perhaps the most obvious one. No numbering or symbols at all, just the dash markings, or even no markings at all. Information about the state of your gas tank is already presented to you by the needle – you’re staring right at it. No need to say explicitly that full means full, empty is empty and that there is half of tank left half way through the needle sweep. Duh.
How about a story about how fuel gauges WORK? It’s pretty easy to measure a liquid in something that’s not moving and level ground. But how do you measure a liquid when it’s constantly sloshing around?
The VW Phaeton had a nice gauge and I can confirm that when going flat out you can actually see it move slowly.
Bought a CJ7 new. Has the F/E gauge in all it’s glory. Funny thing is when I picked it up, the delivery person told me that the fuel gauge is pegged when it’s full and when it goes to 1/4 it’s actually empty. You have to love AMC in the 80’s.
Don’t forget this one: https://www.reddit.com/r/CrappyDesign/comments/upf7hj/this_fuel_gauge_does_a_pretty_bad_job_at_telling/
They did an article about that one already. I thought for sure it would come up here.
Also, as I noted on the Autopian article about it, that’s not a crappy design. It’s actually a very minimalist design that still provides sufficient information to accurately plan your fuel fillups.
Since we have digital displays in cars, let’s just do away with the needle on a round face altogether. VW Atlas had the right idea about how to best confuse people about the level of fuel in the vehicle, but I propose a new solution inspired by British colloquialisms. You see, the display indicates a word or phrase to tell you how much fuel remains.
So here we go:
“Naught” – when the vehicle has already ran dry and the petrol is a dead parrot – no more. 0-5% remaining.
“Cockles” – which means you’re about to have your posterior pinkered if you don’t fill soon. 5-13% remaining
“Nothing to see here, move along” – 13-37% remaining
“Jezza” – enough fuel to hoon about for a scant bit of afternoon. 37-53.72% remaining
“Chaffed” – happy enough to have a full-ish tank. 53.72-88.88% remaining
“Jacked to the tits” – more or less totally full. 88.88-97.4836876% remaining
“Boris Johnson” – needs no explanation 97.4836876-99.5% remaining
“Bloody Hell” – you managed to top the tank and must have had to fuddle with the petrol nozzle a dozen times to get there. 99.5-100% remaining.
If we go with something more american, we just reverse the “F” and the “E”. F is for “Fucked” as in the tank is dry. “E” is for Enough (gas to get there… maybe)
What about a discussion of digital fuel gauges? I am picturing the one with several bars that light up when full and then go back down as the tank empties.
I have that as well, but – while I don’t think about it and had to look it up – the 2017 Volt uses E and F to mark the bottom and top of its bar, respectively. (It uses – and + for the electric side, which is cute but maybe less intuitive, but the lit up bars more than make up for that.)
Older Volvos (and possibly other cars) have the number of gallons (or liters) as numbers on the fuel gauge
And also, you forgot about the digital gauges with the bars 😛
There are also vertical gauges. Do you prefer vertical over horizontal? The Fe iron would make sense, as the F would be on top of the E
I voted Teutonic Unreduced
I wonder if an automaker has ever made a hexadecimal fuel gauge. 0-F, with 8/F being half.
Actually just realized my mistake, 8/10 hex would be 1/2
My 2012 Prius v has a combo American Iron/Symbolic, and now you’ve got me wishing it went full symbolic, because the universality is definitely desirable.
It has the visual fuel door side indicator at the top and ten vertically stacked blocks that disappear as you drive. All good, except the “F” and “E” at the top and bottom. Wonder how you’d get around it in that case, while still keeping the blocks. It’s definitely precise enough for my needs; this thing doesn’t have the range or fuel economy of a typical Prius so I usually keep it above 1/4 tank anyway.
The best is Volvo’s “you’re smart enough to figure it out for yourself” scheme:
My 1926 T has no fuel gauge. It has a stick to put in the fill port. How does that figure, as I have a hard time not seeing this car as American Iron?
I have such a stick for my 1932 Chevrolet. I think it might have been a gas station give away as it is printed for Ford on one side and Chevrolet on the other, and it further divided in capacity of fuel tank on either car. Actually pretty accurate on my 10 gal tank.
I bet it’s for a hydrogen fuel vehicle, where the fuel is less dense than air and therefore floats to the top of the tank.
As much as I love all the wacky car stuff, the tail light fetishist material (no judging), the reviews and the rust-coated adventures it is the material like the opening sentence of this article that keeps me coming back for more.
Jason, please never change.