Kinetic Energy

Kinetic energy is energy of motion. Objects that are moving, such as a roller coaster, have kinetic energy (KE). If a car crashes into a wall at 5 mph, it shouldn't do much damage to the car. But if it hits the wall at 40 mph, the car will most likely be totaled.

Kinetic energy is similar to potential energy. The more the object weighs, and the faster it is moving, the more kinetic energy it has. The formula for KE is:

KE = 1/2*m*v2

where m is the mass and v is the velocity.

One of the interesting things about kinetic energy is that it increases with the velocity squared. This means that if a car is going twice as fast, it has four times the energy. You may have noticed that your car accelerates much faster from 0 mph to 20 mph than it does from 40 mph to 60 mph. Let's compare how much kinetic energy is required at each of these speeds. At first glance, you might say that in each case, the car is increasing its speed by 20 mph, and so the energy required for each increase must be the same. But this is not so.

We can calculate the kinetic energy required to go from 0 mph to 20 mph by calculating the KE at 20 mph and then subtracting the KE at 0 mph from that number. In this case, it would be 1/2*m*202 - 1/2*m*02. Because the second part of the equation is 0, the KE = 1/2*m*202, or 200 m. For the car going from 40 mph to 60 mph, the KE = 1/2*m*602 - 1/2*m*402; so KE = 1,800 m - 800 m, or 1000 m. Comparing the two results, we can see that it takes a KE of 1,000 m to go from 40 mph to 60 mph, whereas it only takes 200 m to go from 0 mph to 20 mph.

There are a lot of other factors involved in determining a car's acceleration, such as aerodynamic drag, which also increases with the velocity squared. Gear ratios determine how much of the engine's power is available at a particular speed, and traction is sometimes a limiting factor. So it's a lot more complicated than just doing a kinetic energy calculation, but that calculation does help to explain the difference in acceleration times.