Saturday, 30 January 2016

Back to the Future: DeLorean Acceleration Rates

Towards the end of the film Back to the Future, Marty McFly has to accelerate the DeLorean time machine up to 88 mph in order to travel from 1955 to 1985.  

Doc Brown explains: "I've painted a white line waaayyy over there on the street. That's where you start out. I've calculated the distance and wind resistance to active the moment the lightning strikes. This alarm will go off and you hit the gas..."


Simple question:  how far away was the start line from the electric overhead wire and the clock tower?

We can use simple dynamics (or kinematics) to calculate the distance the the DeLorean would have needed to reach 88 mph, if we know the car's rate of acceleration, and take it as a given that the car is starting from rest (it's stationary).


The formula to use is v2 = u2 + 2as where v is the final velocity (88 mph), u is the start velocity (0 mph), a is the rate of acceleration, and s is the distance (which is what we want to know).

Inserting u=0 and rearranging, we have s = v2 / 2a.

According to the Wikipedia entry for the DeLorean, acceleration from 0-60 mph took 8.8 seconds.  And this is where it gets tricky, because s = v2/2a requires consistent units for time in the velocity and acceleration.  I am going to make the simplifying assumption that the acceleration from 0-60 continues from 60-88 mph. In reality, it doesn't, but we'll assume it does.

60 mph = 60 / (60 × 60) miles per second = 0.01666 miles per second.

To reach this speed in 8.8 seconds, the acceleration rate is 0.01666 / 8.8 = 1.8939 ×10-4 miles per second per second. 

88 mph = 88/ (60×60) miles per second = 0.02444 miles per second. 

Time to plug in the numbers:

s= (0.02444) 2 / (2× 1.8939 ×10-4)

s = 1.572 miles

And, just for interest, how long (seconds) would it take? That's easier, using v=u+at and solving for t: t = v/a = 88/8.8 = 10 seconds.

So, the Start Line was just over a mile and a half from the clock tower, (perhaps you could describe that as "waaay over there" with some dramatic licence)  and the journey would have taken 10 seconds (all assumptions taken into consideration).  Somehow, though, it seems a little bit longer on screen.