What Does DTE Mean In A Car?

car fuel range

Trying to figure out how much fuel is left in the tank can be confusing. The gauges don’t always provide an accurate representation, so many people rely on the DTE data. So, what does DTE mean in a car and how can it be used to determine when to fill up?

In this guide, we cover the meaning of DTE and show you how it’s calculated. We also touch on the DTE accuracy, show you how much further you can drive and answer some of your top questions. 

What Does DTE Mean In A Car? 

DTE stands for Distance to Empty. It’s the indicator used to determine how much further the car can travel with the fuel that’s left in the tank. The distance that remains is put on display, possibly on the dash on a small screen or as part of the infotainment center, depending on your car. 

As the fuel starts to run down, the low fuel indicator will come on. You can look at the DTE to determine exactly how many miles are left until you must get fuel. Every manufacturer sets a different standard, so the remaining gas is relative to whatever the measurement is. 

You can also find the DTE message in electric vehicles, which calculates the distance of electrical power left.

How Is DTE Calculated?

car range

DTE is calculated based on the amount of fuel left in the tank divided by the average fuel economy. Therefore, if there’s a gallon of fuel left in the tank and your car averages 25 mpg, the DTE will reveal 25 miles until empty.

You can figure out DTE without this innovation. If you know how much fuel your tank holds and you’ve been estimating the gas mileage over time, you can start counting down with every fill-up as well. 

As an example, if your tank holds 20 gallons of fuel and it gets 25 mpg, you know that after a fill-up, you can drive about 500 miles before the tank is empty. You can track this yourself by using the trip odometer.

After you refuel, the DTE resets itself. Not only will the gas gauge rise back up to F (full), but the DTE should reveal the approximate mileage considering you have a full tank of gas. 

How Accurate is DTE?

The DTE reading isn’t precise. It’s included with your vehicle to provide an estimation. While it may be accurate some of the time, various factors can throw off the measurement. On average, the DTE is expected to figure out the distance to empty with a variation of up to 15%. 

Here are some of the main factors determining an accurate DTE. 

Driving Habits

The variable that affects this distance the most is your driving habits. If you are heavy on the gas or brake, the estimation may not be accurate because you go through more fuel than expected.

If you want to increase the fuel economy of your vehicle, you should accelerate smoothly. It’s also helpful to anticipate stopping early and to let off the gas for a little before braking. 


Another factor is the type of terrain you are driving on. If you spend time commuting on the highway, you can expect higher fuel economy than someone in an urban environment.

Stop-and-go traffic requires more fuel than maintaining a consistent speed. Additionally, if you take your vehicle off-road or down dirt roads, you can expect to go through more fuel than the average. 

Car Weight

The average vehicle weight is anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 pounds. A car that weighs less is going to use significantly less fuel than a heavier one.

Additionally, the amount of weight put into the car, either in the trunk or through towing, also has an impact on fuel economy. That’s why trucks that are heavily weighed down often suffer to get good gas mileage. 

Outside Temperature

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, cooler weather can adversely affect fuel economy. Some studies show a 15% drop in fuel economy when driving in the city when it’s 20°F versus 77°F.

Additionally, these temperature shifts can account for a 24% dip if the trip is only three to four miles. Before judging how much fuel is left, consider what the temperature outside is and adjust accordingly.  

Car Maintenance

It’s also important to consider how well your vehicle is running. If you have kept up with the maintenance and it’s had a recent oil change, you can expect decent fuel economy from it.

Otherwise, the fuel economy may suffer, leaving you thinking that you can drive longer than you should. With fouled spark plugs, dirty oil or clogged filters, the vehicle will go through fuel much faster, causing the estimation to be far off. 

How Many Miles Can You Drive On Empty?

Gas warning light comes on

Every manufacturer sets a different limitation to turn on the fuel indicator light. Once this light comes on, there’s a varying amount of fuel left in the tank. Yet, every driver knows that this indicator means it’s time to fill up.

While you can look at the DTE to determine how soon fuel is needed, you shouldn’t rely on this estimation. As we’ve just revealed, numerous factors affect how accurate this number is. Therefore, you don’t want to take any chances when it comes to running out of fuel, especially if you are in a remote area.

While there’s no universal standard among manufacturers, most turn on the light when the tank is about 10-15% from empty. At this point, you may see ten to fifty miles left on the DTE. Yet, some car owners have reported going another fifty miles once the DTE reveals 0. This would be a risky practice and we don’t recommend it. 

RELATED: How Far Can You Drive On Empty?

What If I Run Out Of Gas?

If you’ve pushed the car to the limits and have run out of fuel, follow our tips.

  • Pull off in a safe location and turn on the hazards.
  • If you are near a gas station, walk to it and purchase a container for the fuel. Fill it up and take it back to the vehicle.
  • If you aren’t near a gas station or aren’t parked safely enough to exit the vehicle, call for roadside assistance. 

To avoid this situation, keep fuel in the tank. Better yet, run it at least half full at all times to preserve the operation of the fuel pump and to be prepared for any natural disasters that hinder the fuel chain supply.

How does distance to empty work?

The Distance to Empty (DTE) indicator shows you an estimation of how many more miles you can drive on the tank of fuel your car has. It’s not a precise measurement since fuel economy can fluctuate based on driving conditions and behavior. Instead, it’s meant to show you when the tank is getting low, so you can fill it up. 

How far will a car go on 0 miles?

It’s possible that the vehicle won’t drive any further once the DTE hits 0 miles. However, many owners report that there is still some fuel left in the tank once the warning comes on. In some cases, drivers have gotten another fifty miles out of the tank, but we don’t recommend pushing your luck to find out. 

How many gallons are left while the light is on empty?

Once the gas light comes on, there’s typically still 10-15% of a tank left, although this measurement varies based on the vehicle you drive. Therefore, if you have a 20-gallon fuel tank, there may be another two gallons left in the tank when this light comes on. You should get fuel as soon as possible. 

Why do my miles to empty go down so fast?

One of the main reasons is due to poor vehicle maintenance. If the air filters are clogged or the oil is dirty, the car can’t run efficiently. Therefore, it will burn through more fuel than expected and the DTE will decrease faster. It could also be related to the type of area you are driving in because city driving uses more fuel than highway cruising. 

What is distance to empty in an electric vehicle?

This Distance to Empty (DTE) calculation in an electric vehicle is known as the Range. This measurement shows how many more miles the EV could travel on its current charge. However, it’s not a precise measurement because varying factors can cause it to drop suddenly, such as the electrical equipment being used or the type of road you are driving on. 

Today’s vehicles are filled with handy innovations that take the guesswork out of driving. The Distance to Empty (DTE) is one of these functions that help you realize when it’s time to get gas. However, this tool shouldn’t replace common sense. As mechanics, we’ve seen a lot of people rely on the distance counter and end up running out of fuel.

Therefore, once the low fuel light comes on, it’s always best to find a place to fill up. You don’t want to be stuck on the side of the road waiting for help to arrive. 

Learn more: How Far Can You Drive After the Gas Light Turns On?

Categories: General

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