What Is a Commercial Vehicle & How Are They Regulated?

If you’ve never purchased business-use vehicles before, the concept of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) can be somewhat confusing. One would think that any car or truck used for commercial purposes would be considered a commercial vehicle, right? 

Technically speaking, yes. But as you will see in a moment, state and federal regulations provide a much narrower definition of commercial vehicles.

These laws will impact everything from your insurance costs to the type of license you and your driver will need. For example, insuring a commercial vehicle can cost twice as much as purchasing coverage for a regular vehicle.

As such, it’s important to know what’s considered a commercial vehicle and, more importantly, how they’re regulated. 

Find out the definition of a commercial vehicle and federal regulations that outline what a CMV is. We’ll also cover:

Understanding commercial vehicles

In the United States, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is responsible for defining and regulating commercial motor vehicles. Let’s look at the FMCSA definition and identify some examples of a CMV.

What is defined as a commercial vehicle?

A vehicle is formally classified as commercial if it’s used in interstate commerce to transport passengers or goods and meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • Used to transport nine to 15 passengers for compensation (the driver is included in the passenger count)
  • Designed to transport 16 or more passengers
  • Has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combination weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more.
  • Designed to transport hazardous materials

If a vehicle meets any of the above criteria, it will be classified as a commercial vehicle per the FMCSA rule.

What is an example of a commercial vehicle?

Commercial trucks that exceed the 10,001-pound weight limit are the most common example of CMVs. Heavy-duty tow trucks, dump trucks, and semi trucks with tractor trailers are all CMVs. The specific commercial driver’s license (CDL) a driver needs to operate these vehicles will vary based on the vehicle’s GVWR.

Remember, weight alone doesn’t determine whether a vehicle is classified as commercial. Transit buses that accommodate over 15 passengers are CMVs, even if they’re under the FMCSA’s weight limit.

Depending on the classification of the vehicle and what it’s used for, you may also need to invest in electronic logging devices (ELDs). An ELD tracks how many hours a driver operates the vehicle each day and creates digital logs for compliance and reporting. 

For example, semitrucks that are hauling goods across the country will need an ELD. However, if you manage a small business fleet that provides local services, an ELD will probably not be needed.

What is gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR)?

A gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR, is a vehicle’s maximum operating weight, as determined by the manufacturer.

The GVWR includes the weight of the vehicle plus its load. For instance, let’s say you have a dump truck that weighs 10,000 pounds and can accommodate 20,000 pounds of material. The vehicle would have a GVWR of 30,000 pounds.

Do I need a CDL to drive a commercial motor vehicle?

If a vehicle is classified as a CMV, then yes, you’ll need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate it.

The kind of vehicle you’re operating and cargo you’re transporting will determine what class of CDL you need. For instance, vehicle towing may or may not require a CDL. The type of licensing required will depend on both the weight of the vehicle itself and the weight of your load.

Other factors that impact whether you need a CDL are the number of passengers you’re transporting and whether you’re engaging in interstate commerce.

For example, you don’t need a CDL to drive a recreational utility vehicle that accommodates nine to 15 people for personal enjoyment. However, if you’re providing transportation to those individuals in exchange for compensation, a CDL and commercial plates would be necessary.

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Choosing the right commercial vehicle for your business

There’s a wide variety of commercial vehicles available, including buses, vans, and heavy-duty trucks. With so many options, it’s important that you carefully consider the pros and cons of each type in order to choose the best fit for your business. Let’s look at a few different types, which include:

Commercial trucks

Commercial trucks include:

  • Box trucks: Box trucks have an enclosed trailer or “box” attached directly to the cab. Box trucks feature separate cabs and cargo areas, which differentiates them from cargo vans. Box trucks are typically used by moving companies, or other businesses that need secure space to move materials relatively short distances. 
  • Heavy-duty pickup trucks: Pickup trucks aren’t CMVs, but they’re often used for commercial applications. Pickups are a great addition to a small business fleet because they can haul cargo, pull a trailer, and ensure that employees have all the tools they need to serve their customers. 
  • Dump trucks: Dump trucks come in a variety of sizes and hauling abilities. Used for everything from junk removal to aggregate transportation, this commercial truck is ideal for early unloading materials, thanks to their hydraulic dump systems. 
  • Semi trucks: Semi trucks feature a trailer and a truck, which are connected by a fifth wheel. Also known as big rigs, tractor trailers, and 18-wheelers, these vehicles are typically used to haul a large volume of cargo over long distances.

Trucks are versatile, durable, and capable of hauling lots of cargo, but they aren’t the right fit for every small business fleet. Many business owners prefer to go with a more cost-effective, versatile option, such as commercial vans.

Commercial vans

The types of commercial vans you’ll encounter include the following:

  • Step vans: Also known as walk-in delivery or multi-stop vans, step vans are taller than your standard van and have connected cab and cargo areas. Parcel and courier companies often use these vehicles, as they allow drivers to park, access the cargo area, drop off deliveries, and head to their next stop with ease.
  • Passenger vans: Passenger vans are commonly employed by tour or travel service providers. Theme parks, large casinos, and other big venues use them to shuttle guests from the parking lot to the entrance. Typically, a passenger van can accommodate between nine and 15 passengers. 
  • Cargo vans: Cargo vans also feature connected cabs and cargo areas. However, they’re smaller and more maneuverable than step vans. Due to their versatility, cargo vans are often chosen by cable repair, electrical, and plumbing service providers.

Vans, particularly cargo vans, are cost-effective and agile options for home service businesses.

Heavy-duty vs. light-duty vehicles

When exploring vehicles for your business, you will encounter “light-duty,” “medium-duty,” and “heavy-duty” options. The Environmental Protection Agency created this emissions classification schedule based on the vehicle’s weight. 

According to the EPA, a pickup truck is classified as heavy-duty if it has a GVWR above 8,500 pounds; passenger vehicles (like vans) are considered light-duty if they weigh less than 8,500 pounds, and vans are classified as medium-duty if they weigh between 8,501 and 10,000 pounds.

There’s no heavy-duty classification for passenger vans that can accommodate eight or fewer people. 

Typically, heavy-duty vehicles cost more to register and insure. However, they have a higher GVWR, meaning they can accommodate more cargo. Keep these factors in mind when selecting your vehicles.

Force Fleet Tracking allows you to seamlessly track both light and heavy duty fleet vehicles, all within one easy-to-use platform on your mobile app or web browser. It’s why fleet-based businesses are choosing Force as their go-to for vehicle tracking, maintenance, and more.


Navigating commercial vehicle regulations

While there are many commercial vehicle regulations, not all of them will apply to your business. Here are some broad FMCSA regulations that will likely pertain to your company:

Under FMCSA rules, you’ll need to comply with regulations regarding:

  • Medical exams for drivers
  • Safe CMV operating guidelines
  • Alcohol and controlled substance testing for all CDL holders
  • Hours of service limitations
  • Maintenance, inspection, and repair requirements.

You’ll also need to show that your vehicles are properly insured.

Keep in mind that FMCSA CMV rules may not apply to your fleet if you only engage in intrastate commerce. However, you’ll still be subject to local and state regulations, which typically mirror FMCSA guidelines.

Registering your commercial vehicle: a step-by-step guide

Before you attempt to register your commercial vehicle, review federal and state regulations to determine whether it’s classified as a CMV. If the vehicle that you’re using for commercial operations isn’t considered a “commercial motor vehicle”, you’ll enjoy a simplified registration process.

Non-CMV business vehicles are registered with your state’s department of motor vehicles.

To register your vehicle, you’ll need:

  • proof of insurance
  • the original title
  • a bill of sale
  • your business license
  • several forms of personal identification. 
  • smog inspection certificate (state-dependent)

While gathering most of these documents should be relatively straightforward, getting insurance can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are a handful of providers that specialize in meeting the needs of small business fleets, such as Pouch Insurance. Pouch offers tailorable plans and is a Force vendor partner.

Why your business needs Force for commercial vehicles

Once you’ve identified the right commercial vehicles for your small business fleet, you need to protect your investment. 

Force Fleet Tracking is an asset-tracking solution, purpose-built for small businesses. With Force, you can access a wealth of fleet-tracking and vehicle health performance-monitoring features–without the big price tag. Our plug-and-play solutions provide GPS tracking, geofencing capabilities, driver behavior monitoring, and much more.

The intuitive Force platform provides you with an interactive map, which shows the location of all vehicles on a single screen.

Our solution features vehicle disturbance notifications, so you can keep watch over your fleet vehicles no matter where they’re parked. You’ll know when a vehicle is towed, hit, bumped, or stolen.  Make use of robust reporting tools that allow you to track driver and vehicle performance over time and make changes to promote fleet efficiency.

Force also includes a Driver Roadscore, which is calculated by measuring driver behavior. This score provides insights into driver performance so you can identify top team members and proactively address concerning behavior.

Did we mention that Force costs just $20 per month per vehicle, and the hardware ships free? That’s right — for less than $20 a month, you can protect your commercial vehicle investments, promote safety, monitor driver behavior, and access industry-leading customer service.

The health monitoring functionality is one of Force’s leading features, as it tracks DTCs, battery health, maintenance needs, recalls, and more so you can proactively work to maximize uptime and keep your vehicles on the road.

📈Don’t let vehicle downtime hinder your business growth. With Force Fleet Tracking’s vehicle health and maintenance feature, you can monitor your fleet’s condition, predict maintenance needs, and control costs effectively.

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Published August 10, 2023