Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion

Read this text for an introduction on graphical position, velocity, and acceleration with regards to one another. As you read, pay attention to Figure 2.46 which is an example of a linear graph is the graph of position versus time when acceleration is zero.

See an example of this type of graph in Figure 2.47. In this graph, we can determine the slope by picking two different points on the line, taking the change in y-value, and dividing it by the change in x-value between those two points. In this case, the unit for slope is m/s, which is the unit for velocity. Therefore, the slope for a graph of position versus time with zero acceleration is the average velocity of that object. See how to calculate the average velocity of an object from this type of graph in Example 2.17.

When acceleration is a non-zero constant, the graph of position versus time is no longer linear. You can see an example of this type of graph in Figure 2.48. Note that while the position versus time graph is not linear, the velocity versus time graph is linear. In the position versus time graph, the slope at any given point is the instantaneous velocity of the object. The instantaneous slope can be determined by drawing a tangent line at the desired point along the graph and determining slope. Pay attention to the tangent lines drawn in Figure 2.48 (a).

To determine instantaneous velocity at a given time when acceleration is a non-zero constant, take a look at Example 2.18. We can determine instantaneous velocities at multiple points along a position-time graph with constant non-zero acceleration and make a table relating these instantaneous velocities to the specified time along the x-axis where we found them. Then, we can use that table to plot velocity versus time. This process is demonstrated in Figure 2.48 (a) and (b). The slope of this linear graph has units  m/s^{2} , which are acceleration units. Therefore, the slope of the velocity versus time graph is acceleration.

Graphs of Motion When a is Constant but a≠0

The graphs in Figure 2.48 below represent the motion of the jet-powered car as it accelerates toward its top speed, but only during the time when its acceleration is constant. Time starts at zero for this motion (as if measured with a stopwatch), and the position and velocity are initially 200 m and 15 m/s, respectively.

Three line graphs. First is a line graph of displacement over time. Line has a positive slope that increases with time. Second line graph is of velocity over time. Line is straight with a positive slope. Third line graph is of acceleration over time. Line is straight and horizontal, indicating constant acceleration.

Figure 2.48 Graphs of motion of a jet-powered car during the time span when its acceleration is constant. (a) The slope of an x vs. t graph is velocity. This is shown at two points, and the instantaneous velocities obtained are plotted in the next graph. Instantaneous velocity at any point is the slope of the tangent at that point. (b) The slope of the v vs. t graph is constant for this part of the motion, indicating constant acceleration. (c) Acceleration has the constant value of 5.0 \, m/s^{2} over the time interval plotted.

A photo shows a U S Air Force jet speeding down a track with a lot of smoke around it.

Figure 2.49 A U.S. Air Force jet car speeds down a track

The graph of position versus time in Figure 2.48(a) is a curve rather than a straight line. The slope of the curve becomes steeper as time progresses, showing that the velocity is increasing over time. The slope at any point on a position-versus-time graph is the instantaneous velocity at that point. It is found by drawing a straight line tangent to the curve at the point of interest and taking the slope of this straight line.

Tangent lines are shown for two points in Figure 2.48(a). If this is done at every point on the curve and the values are plotted against time, then the graph of velocity versus time shown in Figure 2.48(b) is obtained. Furthermore, the slope of the graph of velocity versus time is acceleration, which is shown in Figure 2.48(c).

Example 2.18 Determining Instantaneous Velocity from the Slope at a Point: Jet Car

Calculate the velocity of the jet car at a time of 25 s by finding the slope of the x vs. t graph in the graph below.

A graph of displacement versus time for a jet car. The x axis for time runs from zero to thirty five seconds. The y axis for displacement runs from zero to three thousand meters. The curve depicting displacement is concave up. The slope of the curve increases over time. Slope equals velocity v. There are two points on the curve, labeled, P and Q. P is located at time equals ten seconds. Q is located and time equals twenty-five seconds. A line tangent to P at ten seconds is drawn and has a slope delta x sub P over delta t sub p. A line tangent to Q at twenty five seconds is drawn and has a slope equal to delta x sub q over delta t sub q. Select coordinates are given in a table and consist of the following: time zero seconds displacement two hundred meters; time five seconds displacement three hundred thirty eight meters; time ten seconds displacement six hundred meters; time fifteen seconds displacement nine hundred eighty eight meters. Time twenty seconds displacement one thousand five hundred meters; time twenty five seconds displacement two thousand one hundred thirty eight meters; time thirty seconds displacement two thousand nine hundred meters.

Figure 2.50 The slope of an x vs. t graph is velocity. This is shown at two points. Instantaneous velocity at any point is the slope of the tangent at that point.


The slope of a curve at a point is equal to the slope of a straight line tangent to the curve at that point. This principle is illustrated in Figure 2.50, where Q is the point at t=25 \, s.


1. Find the tangent line to the curve at t=25 \, s.

2. Determine the endpoints of the tangent. These correspond to a position of 1300 m at time 19 s and a position of 3120 m at time 32 s.

3. Plug these endpoints into the equation to solve for the slope, v.

\text { slope }=v_{\mathrm{Q}}=\frac{\Delta x_{\mathrm{Q}}}{\Delta t_{\mathrm{Q}}}=\frac{(3120 \mathrm{~m}-1300 \mathrm{~m})}{(32 \mathrm{~s}-19 \mathrm{~s})}


v_{\mathrm{Q}}=\frac{1820 \mathrm{~m}}{13 \mathrm{~s}}=140 \mathrm{~m} / \mathrm{s}.


This is the value given in this figure's table for v at t=25 \mathrm{~s}. The value of 140 \mathrm{~m} / \mathrm{s} for v_{\mathrm{Q}} is plotted in Figure 2.50. The entire graph of v vs. t can be obtained in this fashion.

Carrying this one step further, we note that the slope of a velocity versus time graph is acceleration. Slope is rise divided by run; on a v vs. t graph, rise = change in velocity \Delta v and run = change in time \Delta t.

The Slope of V vs. T

The slope of a graph of velocity v vs. time t is acceleration a.

\text { slope }=\frac{\Delta v}{\Delta t}=a

Since the velocity versus time graph in Figure 2.48(b) is a straight line, its slope is the same everywhere, implying that acceleration is constant. Acceleration versus time is graphed in Figure 2.48(c).

Additional general information can be obtained from Figure 2.50 and the expression for a straight line, y=m x+b

In this case, the vertical axis y is V, the intercept b is v_{0}, the slope m is a, and the horizontal axis x is t. Substituting these symbols yields

v=v_{0}+a t

A general relationship for velocity, acceleration, and time has again been obtained from a graph. Notice that this equation was also derived algebraically from other motion equations in Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension.

It is not accidental that the same equations are obtained by graphical analysis as by algebraic techniques. In fact, an important way to discover physical relationships is to measure various physical quantities and then make graphs of one quantity against another to see if they are correlated in any way. Correlations imply physical relationships and might be shown by smooth graphs such as those above. From such graphs, mathematical relationships can sometimes be postulated. Further experiments are then performed to determine the validity of the hypothesized relationships.