Calculating Average Speed and Average Velocity

As an object moves, it often undergoes changes in speed. For example, during an average trip to school, there are many changes in speed. Rather than the speed-o-meter maintaining a steady reading, the needle constantly moves up and down to reflect the stopping and starting and the accelerating and decelerating. One instant, the car may be moving at 50 mi/hr and another instant, it might be stopped (i.e., 0 mi/hr). Yet during the trip to school the person might average 32 mi/hr. The average speed during an entire motion can be thought of as the average of all speedometer readings. If the speedometer readings could be collected at 1-second intervals (or 0.1-second intervals or … ) and then averaged together, the average speed could be determined. Now that would be a lot of work. And fortunately, there is a shortcut. Read on.

The average speed during the course of a motion is often computed using the following formula:

In contrast, the average velocity is often computed using this formula

Let’s begin implementing our understanding of these formulas with the following problem:

Q: While on vacation, Lisa Carr traveled a total distance of 440 miles. Her trip took 8 hours. What was her average speed?

To compute her average speed, we simply divide the distance of travel by the time of travel.

That was easy! Lisa Carr averaged a speed of 55 miles per hour. She may not have been traveling at a constant speed of 55 mi/hr. She undoubtedly, was stopped at some instant in time (perhaps for a bathroom break or for lunch) and she probably was going 65 mi/hr at other instants in time. Yet, she averaged a speed of 55 miles per hour. The above formula represents a shortcut method of determining the average speed of an object.

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