Man walking down the road with a jerry can

What Happens If I Run Out Of Fuel?

Your car is spluttering and coughing. Somehow, you’ve missed your fuel gauge dropping down to zero. With no petrol station in sight, you’re about to be stranded.

By Shell on Oct. 12, 2020

What now? The best case is you face some level of inconvenience. The worst case is you could be up for thousands of dollars in repairs.

Why you don’t want to run out of fuel

If you drive a vehicle that runs on petrol, draining your tank dry is bad news for a variety of reasons. Your car’s fuel pump uses fuel as a means of lubrication or cooling, so it can be damaged when there’s no fuel in the system. Your fuel pump will also suck up the last dregs from the very bottom of the tank, which is exactly where any sediment or debris (including, on older cars with metal tanks, rust particles) settle. If you’re lucky you might just end up with a clogged fuel filter, but you could damage the fuel pump.

If you drive a diesel, the dry-tank scenario is even more perilous. While the high-pressure direct-injection set-ups in today’s diesels help them deliver impressive performance and economy, they will not tolerate air getting into the system.

In addition to the risk of damaging your car’s diesel injection pump and fuel injectors – just the latter can cost hundreds of dollars or more each, and your engine has several of them – the whole system will need to be primed to remove all traces of air. That’s means more time (meaning money) in the workshop.

Your car has everything you need to avoid this elemental mistake. At the very least, you have a fuel gauge with a low-fuel warning light, and often a trip computer with a distance-to-empty function, too.

What to do if you run out of fuel

If you have missed all the warning signs and are running really low or out of fuel, there are a few things you should do.

If you drive a diesel, don’t squeeze the last drops out of the tank. If there’s no service station in sight, accept defeat and stop your car while the engine’s still going. Whatever inconvenience you suffer will be insignificant compared with the cost and hassle of letting it run totally dry.

If you have some warning of impending shutdown (such as a spluttering engine), try to move your vehicle to a safe position, well away from traffic. Switch on your hazard lights and, if your car has a warning triangle or some other reflective safety device, place it about 50 metres behind to give fellow motorists plenty of warning.

If you drive a petrol vehicle and have stopped in a familiar or busy area with known fuel supplies nearby, you can walk to a service station and purchase a jerry can that complies with Australian standards.

You will find safety instructions on how to correctly fill a jerry can near the service station bowser. It’s important to place the jerry can on the ground and keep one hand on it while filling to avoid generating static electricity. Also be careful to keep well away from any potential ignition sources and not overfill the can.

Then it’s just a matter of returning to your vehicle and filling your tank – or getting someone to fetch the fuel for you – and you should be on your way. That’s assuming you haven’t ended up with a clogged fuel filter or some other mechanical malady.

Otherwise – and especially if you drive a diesel or are anywhere unfamiliar or remote – you should stay with your vehicle and seek roadside assistance.

If your car is new enough and from the right brand, you might already have roadside assistance as part of your ownership package. If not, sign up with a state motoring organisation – a basic package that includes roadside-refilling can be had for as little as $10 a month.


Viva Energy Australia Pty Ltd (“Viva Energy”) has compiled the above article for your general information and to use as a general reference. Whilst all reasonable care has been taken by Viva Energy in compiling this article, Viva Energy does not warrant or represent that the information in the article is free from errors or omissions or is suitable for your intended use.

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