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.
How about an up to date digital display that tells me how much it will cost to fill the tank at current fuel pricing from whatever point I’m at?
As fuel volume in the tank decreases the cost to fill ticker goes up.
That would probably negate the need to ever guess how close to true empty I really am ever again. With the added benefit of prolonged fuel pump and filter life.
Volvo is doing a Binary, Fractional without the 0 but replaced with the fuel symbol.
It’s nice and clean:
My Rangers gauge hasn’t worked since 2015. Never replaced it. I don’t need any of these. Just a notebook a pen and my tripmeter.
I vote (corrected half circle) symbolic for simplicity’s sake.
Fun fact: The E-F gauge was adopted when more women started driving because we all know girls aren’t good at math. Although my wife claims to be really good at fractions.
As for your youth elixir crap, just lean into the patina and move on. From personal experience, I know nobody really appreciates a polished turd. *YMMV
I alway knew the E to mean Enough and the F to mean F* All. Seems more descriptive of life than the boring Empty/Full you describe…
I think you should add an option for “sight glass”.
None of the above.
It should have one hash mark per gallon in the tank with a separate red section to indicate when you’re in the reserve if it’s a manual gauge. If it’s digital make it a digital readout saying how many gallons you have left relative to how many gallons the tank holds.
That way you can tell in real time how many gallons you have left and how many gallons you burn.
I think it would put into perspective how fuel inefficient most ICE vehicles are, even today.
I like the American iron. Also, can we start a rant against putting the gas hole on the right side of the car in the U.S.? Don’t you hate being the schmuck going against the lines at a busy gas station? It’s embarrassing.
People put gas in on the left of their car? Thinking back on my last 5 vehicles they all filled up on the right.
I like this one – like you say, clean
ugh. meant to post this on your volvo gauge comment – smh
I went with symbolic, although I like the option someone mentioned of actual litre measurements.
My car (a Citroen BX GTi) has the confusing “4/4 – 1/2 – R” labelling, however, it’s got an additional level of confusion spurring from it’s supplementary tank (fitted to GTi’s, 16v’s and TGD’s, so far as I can tell); because of the way it’s slotted in, it drains before the rest, and doesn’t have a sensor, so “4/4” means it’s anywhere between about 3/4 of a tank and full…
I like the symbolic, but I feel like you got the graphics wrong at half. It should have the white on the bottom and the black on the top to keep in line with the full and empty symbols.
And another John Deere variation
Thanks for that…
I can see why people are complaining that John Deere is making it difficult to fix things.
You have to have an authorized John Deere representative come to divulge the actual reading?
And he covers a shorter distance than that string of code does.
One John Deere variation
Realistically as long as the empty mark is red and the full mark is there I don’t really care what they’re notated as. Hell, no markings at all other than a full line, half line and a red empty line would be enough for me.. maybe minimalist gauges could be a thing.. although I guess a speedometer that just has lines for zero and maximum achievable speed of the vehicle may not be as useful.
Distance to empty should be the only readout. It’s much more accurate, and would give people far more information that an ohm reader from a mechanical gauge.
except for those of us in cars where 25% is either 200km or 100km based on recent driving
reset it each time you fill up.
As a gauge enthusiast, can I suggest we add some red hash-marking for the approach the empty too?
I love little extra visual cues like that. Like how some older domestic performance cars have orange line markings before the actual red line mark on the tach.
My Ram 2500 has a couple of small red lines before the big red empty one. I agree with your point, I love a good graphical gauge backing!
Symbolic, but with a gas pump and the pointy arrow to the fuel door instead of the word “FUEL”
This is brilliant!
(In place of such concision, my Mustang has a ridiculous “fuel door —>” marking…across the bottom of the tach. Ugh.)
Ridiculous as it might be, as someone who swaps cars often, it’s very much appreciated.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s totally useful info, I just think instead it could just be an arrow next to the little gas pump icon on the actual fuel gauge.
(you and I have the same gen Mustang)
Yes we do. Mine needs a Barra heart transplant flown from Australia in a special cooler, but the Essex it was born with lives…for the moment.
I got your point, and I agree, but all I could think of was “better than no indicator at all”, as I’ve dealt with on many cars.
In the symbolic fuel gauge, why is the fuel floating at the top of the tank when it’s half empty?
If an all white circle is full, and an all black circle is empty, WHY IS WHITE AT THE TOP WHEN IT IS HALFWAY?
Does Jason run his cars on levitation juice, or what?
I NEED ANSWERS!!!
That is why I didn’t vote for symbolic. It was drawn wrong.
That’s my main takeaway from the article as well. I want the fuel gauge that comes with an antigravity fuel tank.
Symbolic is fine. I pay more attention to my “distance to empty” read out.
Your missing one. The Teutonic Perfect.
No percentages. Actual volume markings.
As on this 3rd gen Astra marked in Liters
Annoying, the same dashboard also includes only a single turn signal bulb. So you can tell the blinkers are on, but not which side. I guess the precision gods had to be appeased in some way.
This is the one. All the ones in the article just show different ways to give you the same information but this gives me the additional detail of the tank capacity which I can translate to the most important unit – dollars leaving my wallet.
I always wondered if it had been done this way, with actual units. Now I know!
I cheat and use the “miles of range” on all my cars, except for the MGB, where I use the trip odometer because I don’t trust the gauge since it never goes above 3/4. I’ve been told by an MG old-timer that there is actually a slider/adjustment right on the back of the fuel gauge to adjust the full and empty points, but I’m always scared if I stick my hand in the dash that I’ll release the factory smoke from the wiring harness.
I prefer British Perfect, as old Sunbeams used:
Best yet is the dual-scale gauge used on some Z-cars, with an expanded “poverty” section.
Why on Earth isn’t the 20 liter tick halfway between the 10 and 30 ticks? That’s bonkers. (2.2 imp gal = 10 liters)
Probably because it’s an analog device and the signal it provides doesn’t scale linearly, and rather than make some kind of circuit to correct for that they just let the markings be unevenly spaced. Kind of like how the scale on analog speedometers tends to be compressed between 0 and 10 mph—it’s just an artifact of how the device works.
Nice seeing actual volume, but the division lines are poorly done. The line between 25 and 50 is 37.5 liters, so the increment is 12.5 liters. It would be better that the increment was a round number like 10 liters so it’s easier to count between the labeled increments. It’s something I think about when making scale bars for maps.
My Euro spec E31 has this. I like it! The NA spec ones have the American Iron style.
I need one that reads:
Gone – 1/3rd – .5 – 75% – 71/72nds
No love for the “full to the left, empty to the right”?
That one almost got me back in ’05 getting my car out of the dealership.
What vehicle had that? Kind of makes sense to me. It would match the temp gauge. Left is good, right is bad. As God is my witness, that wasn’t a political joke.
That’s what they all says…
My problem with that particular symbolic gauge is that the middle one is upside down. If the “full” symbol is a round tank full of white liquid, the bottom half of the “1/2” symbol should be white!
THIS and I’ll vote for the symbolic, although my heart desires the American Iron.
But maybe full is on the left.
I know in physics and on the light spectrum, black is the absence of color. However, in art, and painting black is the presence of all colors.
Now I’m confused by the symbolic one.
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.
My tweet started this debate, and I shouldn’t risk making it murkier, but I showed the pic of my Spitfire’s fuel gauge to my daughter and her super sensory powers (Autism. Holy shit I love this kid) noticed that the left hash mark for the zero is not angle-cropped like the rest of the hash marks on the gauge. That after I pointed out the inconsistent spacing between the hash marks.
I got nothing here. Whoever made this gauge had an agenda and it was either getting drunk or throwing OCD people into a tizzy.
Yeah, that’s messed up and you should replace that gauge immediately. I like the Teutonic unreduced because it reminds me of music, so that would be my recommendation.
There’s also that fine Smiths practice of indicating pounds per square inch by the sequence L-B-slash-box-quote:
It’s a rebus!
Symbolic for me. Works great for a globalized car market, and maybe gets us one tiny step closer to having all manner of cool car options (yeah, cars…we’re good on SUV and pickup variety I think) on U.S. shores!
Next up: EV range gauges! My own car uses a variation of the mobile phone battery indicator that looks like a cartoon of a AA battery.
I love it when they do that, use something they think we’ll know, and then it sticks around for waaaay longer than one would expect b/c inertia.
Like how a modern check engine light often looks like an outline of a ’60s big block, sometimes complete with top-mounted air cleaner.
The cells in the battery pack still look like that…
They almost certainly do not have the little “button” on the positive end. They would come from the factory either with two flat ends, or with tabs on the ends to facilitate soldering.
The classic example of this is the icon of a floppy disk still being the universal “Save” icon.
How about the fact that the universal icon for a directory is a manila file folder?
That’s what they all says…
Symbolic is the easiest to understand and explain to anyone. It also carries over well to all other forms of fuel (not that the others don’t) so it can work across an entire fleet.
I like symbolic as well, but Torch’s symbol broke my brain. Assuming the empty-looking ball on the left is empty (consistent with his other examplse), the half-full (or half-empty) symbol in the middle shows the fuel floating at the top of the gas tank symbolically. Assuming this is for an earth-car with earth-gas and the car is not upside down your gas should be at the bottom of your gas tank thanks to gravity.
Perhaps it’s for a Jeep and he’s assuming it *is* upside down. Lol
I agree with everything you’ve said, just being fun.
I thought about the Jeep possibility, but it wasn’t David’s artwork or byline.