If the needle on a gas gauge points to "F" and no one is around to see it, does it mean the gas tank is full?
This is not supposed to be a trick question, and the answer is: maybe.
Or so Lauren Klemm discovered recently when she rented a U-Haul cargo van on Falls Road in Baltimore. After filling the van up with almost three gallons of gas for $10.09, Klemm and her dad dropped the van off at the U-Haul store after closing time and left the key in a drop box. Days later, the 25-year-old graduate student checked her bank account to discover that U-Haul charged her $32.25 on top of the $80 she'd already paid.
Klemm was expecting money back.
"We picked up the van with a full tank," said Klemm, who was moving from Anneslie in Baltimore County to her new apartment in Mount Washington. "We put less than 47 miles on the van. We filled the tank up at the station near the U-Haul store and made sure we filled it because the gas pump kept cutting off.
"When I complained, they said I didn't bring the van back with the same amount of fuel that I received when I rented the van," Klemm said. "The general manager said his associate noted that the gas tank did not pass the 'visual inspection.'"
For those unfamiliar with U-Haul's rental policy, every contract displays an image of a gas gauge on it.
By signing the contract, customers agree that the mark on the gas gauge image matches the fuel gauge reading on the vehicle you're renting. As part of the contract, you must also "agree to return this truck with this amount of fuel or pay a $30 fueling fee and a minimum of $5 per gallon for fuel used. U-Haul does not reimburse if this truck is returned with more fuel than when it was dispatched."
Basically, that means that if you pick up the van with a half-tank of gas, you have to return it with a half-tank of gas. If it's any less, you'll be penalized. If it's more, it's your loss.
In Klemm's case, she said she offered to supply U-Haul with her gas receipt and maintains the needle pointed to "F" at drop-off. But U-Haul's assistant manager, Dustin Cuocci, who checked the van the next morning, marked the gas gauge at a quarter- tank less than full. How is it possible that each saw such a stark difference?
Cuocci says, "What people fail to realize is that all our trucks have a much larger tank than a standard vehicle. It's not going to be $10 or $15, but more like $30 to get a quarter-tank. ... If there was a mechanical problem with the gauge, the customer should tell us. Once they leave the lot, it's on them."
As most of us aren't mechanical geniuses, I'm going to guess it might be a tad difficult for customers to know whether there's a malfunction in the gas gauge. I'm also not sure Cuocci explains what happened, but let that be a warning to customers who choose to return a vehicle after closing time. Without witnesses, your best course would be to photograph the vehicle and the gas gauge - but even that might not be enough.
U-Haul's regional office returned Klemm's money as "a goodwill gesture" within a week without our intervention, which is all well and good for Klemm. But there's a bigger issue here.
First, each U-Haul vehicle can come with varying amounts of gas in the tank. If it's full, then a customer merely has to fill the tank up until the gas pump cuts off. (Although this didn't seem to work for Klemm). But what if the tank is between half and three-quarters full? How are you supposed to know when to stop pumping?
Second, U-Haul's policy is drafted in such a way that if the needle is a hair off where it's supposed to be, he's automatically charged a fueling fee. To avoid that fee, a customer is forced to buy extra gas. That would be fair if U-Haul then refunded any extra gas (or the equivalent in money). But it doesn't.
And eyeballing a gas gauge as a method of measurement is unreliable and arbitrary.
As Kenneth Ramsburg of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Weights and Measures program explains, "Gas gauges installed by vehicle manufacturers are notoriously inaccurate.
"There's a cork on a wire in your tank that sends a signal to tell you how much gas is in the tank," Ramsburg says. "If you're parked on level ground, you get one reading. If you're driving or if you're on an incline, you get another. If you turn it on and off and then on again, you get another."
Such inaccuracies could result in customers getting shafted or U-Haul getting less gas from customers than it's supposed to.
"It's inexact," said Neil Abrams, a former Hertz executive who is now president of a travel research company, Abrams Consulting Group in New York. "The rental industry is very responsible in large part, and mostly they err on the side of the customer. But if they're not using a more technology-based system, the consumer must always be aware and diligent about protecting themselves."
When I asked U-Haul spokesman Joanne Fried why tanks aren't filled to "full" so that customers don't have to guess at how much more gas they need to pump, Fried said, "We don't have fuel stations at all of our centers. It gets more costly and expensive to keep the tanks full, too."
Especially for customers who are put in the position of having to give U-Haul free gas.
U-Haul says this isn't a problem, but there are hundreds of consumer complaints found online and a court case that are all based on this issue.
An appeals court in California ruled that a U-Haul customer seeking class action status for a lawsuit that accused the truck rental firm with deceiving customers about fees charged for fuel had enough of a case to move forward. In that case, the customer argued that U-Haul falsely advertised its fueling practice as giving the customer a means of avoiding a fuel charge that is, in fact, unavoidable.
Finally, Abrams says there is a more scientific method of gauging fuel use. Many rental companies, he said, use a computer system that records the manufacturer's estimated standard for fuel efficiency and the number of miles that a customer puts on a vehicle.
"Using those figures, they'll do a calculation based on the per-gallon fuel charge based on the miles they use," Abrams said. "It's a more objective measurable indicator."
Using that basic math, let's go back to Klemm's documents. She logged 46.2 miles on the U-Haul van, according to the final receipt. She filled the tank with 2.883 gallons of gas, according to an Oct. 4 gas receipt she sent me. And finally, if the cargo van that Klemm rented does get the 15 miles per gallon that U-Haul's Web site says it does, it seems Klemm paid for almost exactly the amount of gas she used.