What is a Commercial Vehicle?

October 25, 2021

Commercial vehicle

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Key Takeaways

While many vehicle used for business purposes can be considered a commercial vehicle, the FMCSA has a narrower definition. Depending on the kind of vehicle and work, a driver may be required to obtain a commercial driver’s license. Find out more about what’s considered a commercial vehicle and what the FMCSA’s regulations for these vehicles are.

What is considered a commercial vehicle?

A commercial vehicle is used for commercial or business purposes. Commercial motor vehicles (CMV) may transport goods or paying passengers. A commercial vehicle is often designated "commercial" when it is titled or registered to a company. This may include company cars, fleet vehicles, or other vehicles used for business purposes.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which oversees and regulates commercial vehicles, has a narrower definition. The agency defines a CMV as “any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property when the vehicle:

  • Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating of 4,537 kg (10,001 lb) or more, whichever is greater.

  • Is designed or used to transport between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) for compensation.

  • Is designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers.

  • Is designed for or used in transporting hazardous materials per the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.

Do you need a commercial driver’s license to drive a commercial vehicle?

Not everyone who drives a commercial vehicle needs a commercial driver’s license (CDL). If you drive one of the following vehicles, you need to get a CDL:

  • Any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 or more pounds, provided the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the vehicle being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.

  • Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing another not in excess of 10,000 pounds.

  • Any vehicle designed to transport 16 or more persons, including the driver.

  • Any vehicle transporting hazardous materials.

Types of commercial vehicles

When designated for business use, many vehicles qualify as commercial vehicles. Here’s an overview of the most common types of commercial vehicles.

Commercial trucks

Semi-trucks. Semi-trucks are a combination of a tractor unit attached to a trailer or bed using a fifth-wheel connection. They are also called 18-wheelers, tractor-trailers, and big rigs. Semi-trucks include dry vans, reefers, double or triple trailers, and flatbeds. Semi-trucks are used to haul cargo between distribution and fulfillment hubs.

Box trucks. Box trucks or straight trucks look like semi-trucks, but their tractor is directly attached to the trailer without a fifth-wheel connector. Unlike vans, box trucks have their cargo area separate from the vehicle’s cab. Businesses often use them for moving, local deliveries, and hauling large items like furniture and appliances.

Pickup trucks. Most ordinary pickup trucks aren't automatically considered commercial vehicles. However, sometimes they're used for commercial purposes, even requiring a commercial driver's license (CDL) depending on the business. Pickup trucks can transport goods with a trailer and transport tools and equipment for a business.

Commercial van

Step vans. Also called multi-stop or walk-in delivery, these kinds of trucks are known as "bread trucks" or "bakery trucks" colloquially. These vehicles are taller than full-sized vans, making it easier to access goods and stand up in. Parcel companies (including the United States Postal Service), police and fire departments, and food trucks use delivery trucks.

Cargo vans. Cargo vans — also called sprinters — are one-piece vehicles with their cargo area connected to the driver cab. Some larger cargo vans have roll-up rear doors, similar to box trucks. Cargo vans are typically used for plumbing, electrical, cable repair services, and courier and delivery services.

Passenger vans. Full-sized commercial passenger vans can seat anywhere from nine to 15 passengers. They’re used to transport groups of people as part of a service (transporting guests to a parking lot) or as the service itself (travel or tour operations).

Buses

Buses. Transit buses are designed to transport large amounts of both paying and non-paying passengers. They are typically part of a city’s transportation network or used for school bus systems. Due to a bus's size and passenger-carrying capacity, they are almost always considered commercial vehicles, requiring special licensing.

Motor coaches. A motor coach is a more luxurious bus designed to travel long distances. Modern motor coaches are high-floor buses, with luggage storage below the passenger compartment. These passenger vehicles are designed for comfort, with more amenities than regular buses, such as air conditioning, onboard restroom, and reclining seats. Coaches are used for touring and hired as private charters.

Minibus. Also known as shuttle buses, these vehicles have lower passenger capacities than regular buses but more than passenger vans. Due to their smaller, more flexible nature, minibuses are used for both fixed-route transit and on-demand transportation.

Small chartered groups, airport and rental car services, and campus shuttles for corporations and universities use minibuses.

Miscellaneous

Heavy equipment. Some types of construction, farming, mining equipment and similar heavy vehicles are considered commercial vehicles.

Specialty vehicles. These vehicles have specific functions or designs. For example, government agencies and communities rely on refuse collection, street sweepers, fire trucks, and septic trucks. Tow trucks, passenger trolleys, and RV-style mobile services (bookmobiles, health services) can all be considered commercial vehicles.

Commercial cars. Rental cars, taxis, and delivery vehicles are all considered commercial vehicles. While ride-hailing vehicles (Uber, Lyft) are still considered personal use vehicles, many believe they should be considered commercial vehicles with commercial plates.

FMCSA regulations for commercial vehicles

While all of the above may be considered commercial motor vehicles, not all are subject to federal motor carrier safety regulations. For example, based on the FMCSA’s definition of a CMV, taxicabs are not subject to federal regulations. Similarly, if a vehicle and operator only engage in intrastate commerce, they most likely will be subject to state and local mandates instead of federal laws. (However, many state requirements are identical to FMCSA regulations.)

If a vehicle meets the FMCSA CMV requirements, business owners need to comply with Department of Transportation (DOT) safety regulations regarding:

  • Alcohol and controlled substance testing for all persons required to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL)

  • Driver qualifications including medical exams

  • Driving and operations commercial motor vehicles 

  • Parts and accessories necessary for safe operations

  • Hours of service rules

  • All inspection, repair, and maintenance of vehicles

Besides these regulations, business owners should be aware of the FMCSA's requirements for vehicle insurance, commercial driver's license holders, driving records, and accessibility.

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