Decoding the secret of the gas gauge arrow

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Close-up of a car's gas gauge. The left arrow and gas gauge icon are visible.

See that left-pointing arrow next to the gas pump symbol? Know what it means? (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Tennen-Gas/Wikipedia)

If you own a newer vehicle, here’s something you may have noticed but been completely baffled by. Take a look at the gas gauge on the dashboard, and notice a directional mark next to the little gas pump symbol located above or below the arc that spans the distance between “F” and “E.” It’s a small arrow that points to the left, and not everyone knows what the arrow means, notes Slate.

Decoding the mystery of the mark

Depending upon who you ask, you’ll receive a variety of different answers as to what the arrow indicates. One theory is that the arrow is simply referring to the direction that dots on the gas gauge move, from empty to full. Think in terms of a radio volume dial. Turn the dial clockwise and the volume increases, and counterclockwise attenuates the volume. For those car owners who are mystified by what “F” and “E” mean, the theory is that automakers clarify that the gas gauge needle will move in that direction as fuel is depleted. It may not be a good explanation, mind you.

Where to park to pump

If the last theory seemed like confusing hogwash to you, this one actually gets warm. Some speculate that the left-pointing arrow indicates where you should park your vehicle in relation to the gas pump. Thus, a left-pointing arrow means you should park on the left side of the pump in order to dispense fuel.

Rental company cop

Try this one on for size, conspiracy theorists. Even if the truth is that with this explanation, you’re getting colder. Some have said that the arrow actually lights up once the vehicle has driven a certain distance since it was last refueled. This allegedly enables rental car companies to catch customers who try to return a car without filling it. On many mid-sized vehicles, the arrow reportedly lights up 9.3 miles after last fill-up, which is supposedly a barrier past which a customer can be penalized with extreme prejudice.

Where’s the gas cap?

The theory that Consumer Reports senior engineer Tom Mutchler confirmed is that the arrow indicates which side of the vehicle the filler cap for the gas tank is located. If it points left, the cap is on the left side, which means that the car should be parked to the right of the gas pump at fueling time.

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According to Mutchler, the “vast majority” of new cars have this gas tank arrow. Toyota engineer Maurice Durand explained that in older, arrow-less vehicles, the location of the hose on the gas pump symbol on the dashboard sometimes indicates the side of the car on which the filler cap is located. Today, all Toyota vehicles have the arrow.

Duh, it’s a secret

While the left-arrow explanation may seem obvious, various informal polls conducted by Slate and other media outlets have found that many people had no idea. Colleen McCormick, PR manager for Zipcar, called the left-arrow symbol “one of the best-kept secrets in the automotive world.” Now you know.

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