Decoding Commercial Vehicles: What You Need to Know

When it comes to commercial vehicles, most people think of semi-trucks, but the reality is much broader. However, there are many other types of commercial vehicles, which we will explore in this detailed article, including their definition, classification, and regulations.

all white commercial vehicles of different types

What Are Commercial Vehicles?

General Definition

A vehicle is classified as “commercial” when a business registers it for business use. This can include cars, trucks, vans, and scooters. Any motorized vehicle that runs on gas, diesel, or aviation fuel can be considered a commercial vehicle.

Legal Definition by FMCSA

Commercial vehicles are a type of transportation that is regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in the United States. Although the definition of commercial vehicles can seem broad, it is actually quite specific. While various modes of transportation fall under the general definition of commercial vehicles, the legal definition is narrower:

A motor vehicle that is either self-propelled or towed and is used on a highway to transport passengers or property in interstate commerce is subject to certain regulations. This applies when the vehicle is in use and meets the criteria determined by the law:

  • Vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combination weight rating of 10,001 pounds (4,536 kg) or more, whichever is greater
  • Is designed or utilized to transport between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) for compensation
  • Is designed or utilized to transport 16 or more passengers for compensation
  • Is designed for or utilized in transporting hazardous materials per the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act

This technical definition excludes most vehicles from the earlier list and leaves us with the following:

  • Some light-duty vans and pickup trucks
  • Medium-duty trucks
  • Heavy-duty trucks (semis)

It’s worth noting that while heavy trucks fall under a specific technical definition, there are some exceptions for specialty vehicles, cars, and heavy equipment.

 

Key Takeaways:

  1. Definition and Scope: Commercial vehicles are those utilized for business purposes, encompassing a range of motorized vehicles from trucks and vans to buses and specialty vehicles. Understanding the legal criteria set by the FMCSA helps differentiate commercial vehicles from other fleet types.
  2. Truck Classification: Trucks play a central role in the commercial vehicle landscape, categorized into classes based on weight. These range from light-duty trucks to heavy-duty semis, each serving specific transportation needs. The classification system simplifies the understanding of their capabilities and applications.
  3. Regulations and Compliance: The FMCSA sets forth regulations that businesses must adhere to when operating commercial vehicles. Compliance with safety standards, driver qualifications, and vehicle maintenance is crucial for ensuring both road safety and legal obligations.
  4. Fleet vs. Commercial Vehicles: While the terms “fleet vehicles” and “commercial vehicles” are often used interchangeably, the distinction lies in meeting specific legal criteria. Businesses can operate a fleet with various vehicle types, but only those meeting FMCSA criteria are classified as commercial vehicles.
  5. Driver Licensing and Safety: Drivers of certain commercial vehicles are required to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). Ensuring driver qualifications, regular medical examinations, and adherence to hours of service rules contribute to overall safety and regulatory compliance in the operation of commercial vehicles.

In this article, you learn:

  • The Different Types of Commercial Vehicles
  • Differentiate Between Fleet Vehicles and Commercial Vehicles
  • Commercial Vehicle Regulations set by the FMCSA
  • Safety Regulations That Business Fleet Owners Must Follow

side by side of fleet of scooters and commercial vehicles

Fleet Vehicles Vs. Commercial Vehicles

As discussed earlier, the term “fleet vehicles” encompasses many vehicles, from scooters, motorcycles, golf carts, cars, and trucks to other types like bikes and push scooters.

Using the word “commercial vehicles” is a more precise way of referring to the vehicles previously discussed, including vans, trucks, and semis, all of which fall under the legal definition mentioned earlier.

Due to the way definitions work, a business can run a fleet without the need for commercial vehicles. For instance, a downtown pizza delivery business could equip its delivery drivers with a fleet encompassing five bikes, ten scooters, and four golf carts, none of which would qualify as commercial vehicles by the FMCSA’s standards.

If the company decides to include a Class 3 pickup truck (which will be explained below) in its collection, the truck will be considered a commercial vehicle by law.

Different commercial vehicles

Different Types of Commercial Vehicles

Are you aware of the different types of commercial vehicles that are out there? Some of the most common types include the following. Let’s take a closer look!

Trucks

Commercial vehicles are predominantly trucks that make up the majority of vehicles on the road today. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) classifies trucks into eight categories based on their gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which is the maximum weight a vehicle can handle:

  • Class 1 (GVWR up to 6,000 pounds & less)
  • Class 2A (GVWR of 6,001 to 8,500 lbs)
  • Class 2B (GVWR of 8,501 to 10,000 lbs)
  • Class 3 (GVWR of 10,001 to 14,000 lbs)
  • Class 4 (GVWR of 14,001 to 16,000 lbs)
  • Class 5 (GVWR of 16,001 to 19,500 lbs)
  • Class 6 (GVWR of 19,501 to 26,000 lbs)
  • Class 7 (GVWR of 26,001 to 33,000 lbs)
  • Class 8 (GVWR of 33,000 lbs & over)

The eight specific classifications are further divided into three general categories to simplify things:

  • Heavy-Duty Trucks (Classes 7-8): These are heavier than medium trucks and weigh between 26,001 to over 33,000 lb (11,794 to over 14,969 kg). They include concrete transport trucks, mobile cranes, dump trucks, garbage trucks, log carriers, refrigerator trucks, tractor units, and tank trucks.
  • Medium-Duty Trucks (Classes 4-6): These are larger than light but smaller than heavy trucks. In the US, they are defined as weighing between 14,001–26,000 lb (6,351–11,793 kg) ( and include box trucks, cutaway van chassis, flatbed trucks, platform trucks, stake bed trucks, and firetrucks.
  • Light-Duty Trucks (Classes 1-3): These are larger than mini trucks but smaller than medium trucks. In the US, they are defined as weighing up to 14,000 lb (0.001–6,350 kg) and include pickup trucks, minivans, sport utility vehicles, panel trucks, canopy express, panel van, and tow trucks

Commercial vehicles are defined by the FMCSA, but not all truck classes fall under this definition. According to the FMCSA, only Class 3 to Class 8 trucks are considered commercial vehicles.

 

Here are some examples of trucks:

  • Ford Super Duty F-350 (Class 3)
  • Chevy Silverado 4500HD (Class 4)
  • Peterbilt 325 (Class 5)
  • International DuraStar (Class 6)
  • Mack MD7 (Class 7)
  • Western Star 47X (Class 8)

 

Vans

Vans and trucks fall into the same classifications (e.g., Class 2, Class 3). However, vans are also designed to transport passengers instead of cargo. Cargo vans are categorized based on their Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). These vehicles come in a variety of sizes, ranging from small Class 1 models to larger Class 3 models with higher carrying capacities.

Here are some examples:

  • Dodge Grand Caravan (Class 1)
  • Ford Transit-150 (Class 2A)
  • Ford Transit-250 (Class 2B)
  • Ford Transit-350 (Class 3)

Only the Class 3 vans are considered commercial vehicles.

Passenger vans are vehicles that have more seating capacity than cargo vans, and are classified into different categories ranging from Class 1 through Class 3. However, they are labeled as commercial vehicles when used for commercial purposes.

  • Designed or utilized to transport between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) for payment
  • Designed or utilized to transport 16 or more passengers

The GMC Savana Passenger and Chevrolet Express Passenger are two examples of passenger vans used for commercial purposes.

Buses

Due to their size and ability to carry passengers, buses are typically categorized as commercial vehicles.

Mini-buses, also recognized as shuttle buses, are indeed classified as commercial vehicles, since they possess the ability to carry more passengers than a van but less than a full-size bus.

Motorcoaches are part of the general category of buses and are sometimes classified as commercial vehicles. These types of buses are characterized by their high floors and storage spaces for luggage below where passengers sit. They are considered commercial vehicles when they are utilized for activities such as touring and private charters.

When motor coaches are converted into RVs for personal use, they are no longer classified as commercial vehicles.

Specialty Vehicles

Specialty vehicles are often based on variations of truck, van, and bus chassis, as previously mentioned, and here are some examples:

  • Garbage trucks
  • Street sweepers
  • Fire trucks
  • Septic trucks
  • Tow trucks
  • Passenger trolleys
  • RV-style mobile services (e.g., bookmobiles and health-service vehicles)

A Few Car Examples

When cars are used for specific purposes, they can be classified as commercial vehicles by the FMCSA, even if they are not initially intended for commercial purposes. Passenger cars that fall under this category are known as commercial cars. Some examples of such cars are:

  • Rental cars
  • Taxis
  • Delivery vehicles

An electronics enterprise might provide its sales representatives with a company vehicle for commuting to their meetings. However, it’s worth noting that these vehicles are not considered commercial but rather fleet vehicles.

If an electronics company provides its technicians with a car to deliver equipment and make service calls, that car would be considered a commercial vehicle.

Some Heavy Equipment

Heavy equipment comes in many varieties, but not all of them are considered commercial vehicles. This is because they are designed to be driven only a short distance over the road. A heavy-duty truck and trailer are typically necessary to transport heavy equipment from one jobsite to another.

Commercial vehicles include certain types of construction, farming, and mining equipment. It’s a good idea to reach out to your local Department of Motor Vehicles if you have any questions or need more information.

Commercial vehicle regulations

Commercial Vehicle Regulations

Although all the modes of transportation mentioned earlier may qualify as commercial motor vehicles (CMVs), not all of them are bound to follow the federal motor carrier safety regulations. Taxicabs, for instance, are exempted from the FMCSA’s definition of a CMV and are hence not obligated to comply with federal regulations.

Likewise, if a vehicle and operator only engage in intrastate commerce, they will likely be subjected to state and local mandates rather than federal laws. However, it’s worth noting that many state requirements are very similar to FMCSA regulations.

Business owners are required to follow Department of Transportation (DOT) safety regulations if their vehicle meets the FMCSA CMV requirements. Here are some of the safety regulations:

  • All CDL holders must undergo alcohol and controlled substance testing.
  • Driver qualifications (including medical exams)
  • Driving and operating CMVs
  • Parts and accessories necessary for safe operations
  • Hours of service rules
  • All inspection, repair, and maintenance of vehicles

Business owners should familiarize themselves with the FMCSA’s regulations regarding fleet compliance. This includes requirements such as vehicle insurance, commercial driver’s license holders, driving records, and accessibility. It is important for businesses to stay aware of these regulations in order to maintain compliance and ensure the safety of their fleet.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Do You Need a Commercial Driver’s License to Drive a Commercial Vehicle?

 

You need a CDL if you’re driving a vehicle that weighs over 26,001 pounds, towing another vehicle not exceeding 10,000 pounds, or transporting hazardous materials. A CDL is also required for any vehicle designed to transport 16 or more people.

What are the Benefits of a Commercial Vehicle?

Commercial vehicles are highly functional and durable, capable of enduring a lot of wear and tear. The idea of loading bags of cement into the back of a commercial vehicle is not a problem, unlike trying to do so in the trunk of a Toyota Prius, which may not be as desirable.

Commercial vehicles can also be very versatile. They can easily transport your family around town or haul a load of stuff. Pretty cool, right?

What are the Drawbacks?

It’s worth noting that commercial vehicles are often less advanced than passenger vehicles. While this may suit some drivers, it’s important to be aware of the differences. Commercial vehicles are typically equipped with sturdy suspensions and built to withstand heavy loads, as well as rough terrain. As a result, they’re better suited for demanding work environments and on-road challenges.

Typically, they are not built to provide a smooth and noiseless ride on the highway. Additionally, their size is usually larger than a regular car, which can make it challenging to navigate them in densely populated areas. 

What is Required on a Commercial Vehicle?

Most vehicles used in commerce may require the following:

  • Each side of the vehicle must have the name, city, and state or registered logo or emblem of the registered owner of the vehicle, as well as the lessee of the vehicle if it is being operated under the lease. The information should be painted or permanently attached to the vehicle.
  • Businesses using commercial vehicles to transport goods, whether within your state or across state lines, will need to apply for a USDOT number. You must display this number on both sides of every commercial vehicle you operate.
  • A commercial vehicle driver must possess a document issued by a medical examiner certifying that the driver is medically qualified under state and/or federal standards to operate a commercial vehicle.
  • A qualified inspector must inspect each CMV (commercial motor vehicle) at least once every 12 months.
  • Commercial vehicles are required to have a fire extinguisher that is charged, securely mounted, and easily accessible.
  • It is necessary for the vehicle to be equipped with a spare fuse for any required part and accessory.
  • In the event of a vehicle breakdown, it’s important to have three triangles or flares available.

 

Final Thoughts

Managing a fleet of commercial vehicles can be a challenging task for businesses. However, by understanding the various classifications, regulations, and considerations that come with it, businesses can optimize their fleet management strategies and achieve greater operational efficiency. By complying with safety regulations, maintaining and insuring their vehicles, and carefully considering their costs, businesses can effectively manage their commercial vehicle fleets. Doing so will help them to improve their overall business operations and achieve greater success.