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  • Define and distinguish between instantaneous acceleration, average acceleration, and deceleration.
  • Calculate acceleration given initial time, initial velocity, final time, and final velocity.
An airplane flying very low to the ground, just above a beach full of onlookers, as it comes in for a landing.
A plane decelerates, or slows down, as it comes in for landing in St. Maarten. Its acceleration is opposite in direction to its velocity. (credit: Steve Conry, Flickr)

In everyday conversation, to accelerate means to speed up. The accelerator in a car can in fact cause it to speed up. The greater the acceleration    , the greater the change in velocity over a given time. The formal definition of acceleration is consistent with these notions, but more inclusive.

Average acceleration

Average Acceleration is the rate at which velocity changes ,

a - = Δ v Δ t = v f v 0 t f t 0 , size 12{ { bar {a}}= { {Δv} over {Δt} } = { {v"" lSub { size 8{f} } - v rSub { size 8{0} } } over {t rSub { size 8{f} } - t rSub { size 8{0} } } } } {}

where a - size 12{ { bar {a}}} {} is average acceleration, v size 12{v} {} is velocity, and t size 12{t} {} is time. (The bar over the a size 12{a} {} means average acceleration.)

Because acceleration is velocity in m/s divided by time in s, the SI units for acceleration are m/s 2 size 12{"m/s" rSup { size 8{2} } } {} , meters per second squared or meters per second per second, which literally means by how many meters per second the velocity changes every second.

Recall that velocity is a vector—it has both magnitude and direction. This means that a change in velocity can be a change in magnitude (or speed), but it can also be a change in direction . For example, if a car turns a corner at constant speed, it is accelerating because its direction is changing. The quicker you turn, the greater the acceleration. So there is an acceleration when velocity changes either in magnitude (an increase or decrease in speed) or in direction, or both.

Acceleration as a vector

Acceleration is a vector in the same direction as the change in velocity, Δ v size 12{Dv} {} . Since velocity is a vector, it can change either in magnitude or in direction. Acceleration is therefore a change in either speed or direction, or both.

Keep in mind that although acceleration is in the direction of the change in velocity, it is not always in the direction of motion . When an object slows down, its acceleration is opposite to the direction of its motion. This is known as deceleration    .

A subway train arriving at a station. A velocity vector arrow points along the track away from the train. An acceleration vector arrow points along the track toward the train.
A subway train in Sao Paulo, Brazil, decelerates as it comes into a station. It is accelerating in a direction opposite to its direction of motion. (credit: Yusuke Kawasaki, Flickr)

Misconception alert: deceleration vs. negative acceleration

Deceleration always refers to acceleration in the direction opposite to the direction of the velocity. Deceleration always reduces speed. Negative acceleration, however, is acceleration in the negative direction in the chosen coordinate system . Negative acceleration may or may not be deceleration, and deceleration may or may not be considered negative acceleration. For example, consider [link] .

Four separate diagrams of cars moving. Diagram a: A car moving toward the right. A velocity vector arrow points toward the right. An acceleration vector arrow also points toward the right. Diagram b: A car moving toward the right in the positive x direction. A velocity vector arrow points toward the right. An acceleration vector arrow points toward the left. Diagram c: A car moving toward the left. A velocity vector arrow points toward the left. An acceleration vector arrow points toward the right. Diagram d: A car moving toward the left. A velocity vector arrow points toward the left. An acceleration vector arrow also points toward the left.
(a) This car is speeding up as it moves toward the right. It therefore has positive acceleration in our coordinate system. (b) This car is slowing down as it moves toward the right. Therefore, it has negative acceleration in our coordinate system, because its acceleration is toward the left. The car is also decelerating: the direction of its acceleration is opposite to its direction of motion. (c) This car is moving toward the left, but slowing down over time. Therefore, its acceleration is positive in our coordinate system because it is toward the right. However, the car is decelerating because its acceleration is opposite to its motion. (d) This car is speeding up as it moves toward the left. It has negative acceleration because it is accelerating toward the left. However, because its acceleration is in the same direction as its motion, it is speeding up ( not decelerating).

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Source:  OpenStax, Physics 110 at une. OpenStax CNX. Aug 29, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11566/1.1
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