How do you determine the maximum possible speed your car can go? Well, one rather straight-forward option is to just get into your car, go on the Autobahn and push down the pedal until the needle stops moving. The problem with this option is that there’s not always an Autobahn nearby. So we need to find another way.
Luckily, physics can help us out here. You probably know that whenever a body is moving at constant speed, there must be a balance of forces in play. The force that is aiming to accelerate the object is exactly balanced by the force that wants to decelerate it. Our first job is to find out what forces we are dealing with.
Obvious candidates for the retarding forces are ground friction and air resistance. However, in our case looking at the latter is sufficient since at high speeds, air resistance becomes the dominating factor. This makes things considerably easier for us. So how can we calculate air resistance?
To compute air resistance we need to know several inputs. One of these is the air density D (in kg/m³), which at sea level has the value D = 1.25 kg/m³. We also need to know the projected area A (in m²) of the car, which is just the product of width times height. Of course there’s also the dependence on the velocity v (in m/s) relative to the air. The formula for the drag force is:
F = 0.5 · c · D · A · v²
with c (dimensionless) being the drag coefficient. This is the one quantity in this formula that is tough to determine. You probably don’t know this value for your car and there’s a good chance you will never find it out even if you try. In general, you want to have this value as low as possible.
On ecomodder.com you can find a table of drag coefficients for many common modern car models. Excluding prototype models, the drag coefficient in this list ranges between c = 0.25 for the Honda Insight to c = 0.58 for the Jeep Wrangler TJ Soft Top. The average value is c = 0.33. In first approximation you can estimate your car’s drag coefficient by placing it in this range depending on how streamlined it looks compared to the average car.
With the equation: power equals force times speed, we can use the above formula to find out how much power (in W) we need to provide to counter the air resistance at a certain speed:
P = F · v = 0.5 · c · D · A · v³
Of course we can also reverse this equation. Given that our car is able to provide a certain amount of power P, this is the maximum speed v we can achieve:
v = ( 2 · P / (c · D · A) )1/3
From the formula we can see that the top speed grows with the third root of the car’s power, meaning that when we increase the power eightfold, the maximum speed doubles. So even a slight increase in top speed has to be bought with a significant increase in energy output.
Note the we have to input the power in the standard physical unit watt rather than the often used unit horsepower. Luckily the conversion is very easy, just multiply horsepower with 746 to get to watt.
Let’s put the formula to the test.
I drive a ten year old Mercedes C180 Compressor. According the Mercedes-Benz homepage, its drag coefficient is c = 0.29 and its power P = 143 HP ≈ 106,680 W. Its width and height is w = 1.77 m and h = 1.45 m respectively. What is the maximum possible speed?
First we need the projected area of the car:
A = 1.77 m · 1.45 m ≈ 2.57 m²
Now we can use the formula:
v = ( 2 · 106,680 / (0.29 · 1.25 · 2.57) )1/3
v ≈ 61.2 m/s ≈ 220.3 km/h ≈ 136.6 mph
From my experience on the Autobahn, this seems to be very realistic. You can reach 200 Km/h quite well, but the acceleration is already noticeably lower at this point.
If you ever get the chance to visit Germany, make sure to rent a ridiculously fast sports car (you can rent a Porsche 911 Carrera for as little as 200 $ per day) and find a nice section on the Autobahn with unlimited speed. But remember: unless you’re overtaking, always use the right lane. The left lanes are reserved for overtaking. Never overtake on the right side, nobody will expect you there. And make sure to check the rear-view mirror often. You might think you’re going fast, but there’s always someone going even faster. Let them pass. Last but not least, stay focused and keep your eyes on the road. Traffic jams can appear out of nowhere and you don’t want to end up in the back of a truck at these speeds.
The fastest production car at the present time is the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. Is has a drag coefficient of c = 0.35, width w = 2 m, height h = 1.19 m and power P = 1200 HP = 895,200 W. Let’s calculate its maximum possible speed:
v = ( 2 · 895,200 / (0.35 · 1.25 · 2 · 1.19) )1/3
v ≈ 119.8 m/s ≈ 431.3 km/h ≈ 267.4 mph
Does this seem unreasonably high? It does. But the car has actually been recorded going 431 Km/h, so we are right on target. If you’d like to purchase this car, make sure you have 4,000,000 $ in your bank account.
This was an excerpt from the ebook More Great Formulas Explained.
Check out my BEST OF for more interesting physics articles.