'20/20' peers into 'Tank on Empty'

It's an interesting question, all right: Just how far will your car continue to cruise after the gas-tank warning light comes on?

It was an interesting question back in June when we profiled the debut of a Web site called Tank on Empty that has dedicated itself to collecting hard data and harrowing tales from motorists who push their vehicles to the brink and beyond.

And it will be an interesting question tomorrow night when John Stossel and ABC's "20/20" air an interview with Tank on Empty founder Justin Davis, a 24-year-old Web developer whose day job involves working on PeakFlow X, enterprise network visibility software from Arbor Networks. As you can read on Stossel's blog and see in this promotional video, the hard-bitten newsman - often bitten by media critics - has also ripped a page from a memorable Seinfeld episode called "The Dealership" to help illustrate the story.

(Update June 2, 2008: "Tank" still running full-speed.)

The Tank on Empty idea is simple enough: The site invites motorists to ignore the fuel-warning light for as long as they're comfortable, note the number of miles they drive before refueling, and input the data online. For example, 30 of my fellow Toyota Corolla owners report having driven an average of 52 miles after the light, with one fearless soul checking in at an astounding 99 miles (of course, there's no way to verify these claims).

I caught up with Tank on Empty's Davis via e-mail this morning, and, as might be expected, he's bracing his site for what will likely be a significant traffic spike during and after the airing of his star turn on "20/20."

"I'm as ready as I'll ever be for the traffic," he says. "I'm going to be caching about 95% of the site's views, and updating the cache every few minutes as traffic permits. I'm a bit curious myself as to what will happen ... for all I know, my provider will think it's a DDoS and take me down themselves :-)." (More on his prep in update below.)

What will also be interesting is to see if Stossel ventures into the controversial aspects of this search for maximum miles: namely, that running your tank dry is reportedly a bad idea from the standpoint of proper car care (not that I'd know). That original Buzzblog post in June elicited a number of such warnings.

"It probably isn't a great idea to run your tank dry - I think they'll discuss it on the 20/20 episode - but by some reports it's not as bad as it used to be," says Davis, who oddly enough has yet to test the riding-on-fumes limit for his own vehicle. "It will probably make your fuel pump warmer than it should be, which can contribute to shortened life."

So far, about 1,000 car owners have thrown caution to the wind and registered reports with Tank on Empty, with a good number having checked in since "20/20" began promoting tomorrow's show. Davis is expecting "a huge explosion" of contributors beginning tomorrow night.

Will be interesting to see how the site holds up.

Oh, and in related news, John Stossel is someone's favorite reporter. Go figure.

(Update: I asked Davis to elaborate on his preparations for the traffic spike; he says: "Normally when you visit a Tank on Empty page about a given car, it calculates the stats by querying a database backend and adding, subtracting, etc. This puts my database as a huge bottleneck (this is all run on a VPS). This normally runs through a python backend, but on Friday I'll cache up the most viewed pages (index, findcar, viewcars) and serve them statically. Based on some tests I've run, it'll increase the page-serve rate by about a factor of 25 or so.

"Since I really only expect a one-time hit, I haven't done a lot of changes to architecture (my 'caching' system is just a script that wgets the pages and then serves the html statically through lighttpd). Since I'm not sure what the load will be like (maybe the server will be running 100% load? 50%?), I'm going to update the cache manually (re-run the caching script) as opposed to setting up a cron job, based on traffic and how busy the server is.)

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