What Is a Commercial Vehicle? Definition, Regulations, and More

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) defines a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) as “any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property” that meets certain criteria, like a weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more, or transporting 8 or more passengers for compensation, or over 15 people without compensation.

We'll cover exceptions and other factors in our in-depth definition.

Whether or not your vehicle is treated as commercial has huge implications for federal and state legal requirements.

In this article, we’ll cover what types of vehicles and business operations are covered under the term CMV, and which federal regulations affect you if you are indeed operating a commercial vehicle (or a fleet of CMVs). We’ll also explain the easiest way to comply with these regulations.

Definition of a commercial vehicle

The first step to understanding if the government considers your fleet to include commercial vehicles is to understand the official definition.

Definition of commercial vehicle

According to the FMCSA, any truck or vehicle is considered a commercial vehicle as long as it meets one of the following requirements:

  • The vehicle has a vehicle weight, weight rating, gross combination weight, or gross combination weight rating exceeding 10,001 pounds.
  • The vehicle is designed and used to transport over eight passengers and is doing so for compensation.
  • The vehicle is designed and used to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver), and is not receiving compensation.
  • The vehicle is used to transport hazardous materials as defined in Title 49 by the Secretary of Transportation.

So in terms of US federal law, a regular 4-passenger taxi or a small pizza delivery van — while vehicles often used for commercial purposes — are not considered commercial vehicles. As such, drivers do not require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive them legally.

Drivers and fleet operators that only engage in “intrastate commerce” (transportation of goods or passengers without crossing state lines) should refer to their state’s local definitions and regulations for commercial vehicles.

But that’s only a broad definition, so let’s cover all the different types of vehicles that typically fall under the federal “CMV” label.

Types of commercial motor vehicles

Since the FMCSA is mostly concerned with weight ratings or the number of passengers, almost all types of large vehicles used for commercial purposes are considered commercial vehicles.

Visual of types of CMVs

These include:

  • Semi trucks: A regular semi truck can weigh between 17,000–22,000 pounds without a trailer attached. That means they exceed the minimum weight limit of the CMV definition without any cargo.
  • Buses: The vast majority of buses are used to transport more than eight passengers, so they also fall under the commercial vehicle definition.
  • Limousines: As most limousines can carry between eight to ten passengers, they’re also typically considered commercial vehicles.
  • Heavy construction vehicles: Any construction vehicle that exceeds the 10,001-pound limit is also a CMV.
  • Tank trucks: Not only are these typically heavier than the 10,001-pound limit, they are also often used to transport hazardous materials like gasoline or natural gas and are subject to unique federal regulations (not just commercial vehicle ones).
  • Tow trucks: If the combined weight rating (CWR) of a tow truck is 26,001 pounds or more and the towed vehicle alone has a gross combination weight rating (GVWR) of 10,000 pounds or more, then the driver needs a Class A CDL.
  • Construction trucks: Most construction trucks that are road legal (like cement trucks) exceed the 10,001-pound limit and require a commercial license, and fall under the FMCSA’s regulations.

The most common types of commercial motor vehicles in the US are large commercial trucks with over 13.4 million registered vehicles in 2020 and buses with over 1 million registered vehicles.

Number of US Commercial Vehicles by Type 2020

Note that this is true according to the FMCSA’s definition of a commercial vehicle, as there are a lot fewer registered taxis. Even if you consider every ride-share car a taxi, the number of vehicles would be around 2.4 million.

Because the US relies almost exclusively on trucks to transport goods, the national fleet of over 10 million trucks is fundamental to the nation’s economy and society.

The most important regulations that apply to commercial vehicles

In this section, we’ll cover the federal regulations that apply to vehicles that the FMCSA consider commercial, their drivers, and the companies that hire them.

Illustration of various regulations for CMVs

Let’s start with commercial driving licenses.

Commercial driving license (CDL)

If you’re driving a vehicle that’s classified as a commercial vehicle (even if it’s not a heavy truck or bus), you’re required to have a commercial driving license.

This could, for example, be a vehicle lighter than 10,001 pounds used to transport more than eight passengers or hazardous materials.

Any aspiring truck or bus driver can get a CDL in their home state, starting with a commercial learner’s permit. After passing the CDL theory test and learning from a certified CDL holder for 14 days minimum, you can move on to take the skills tests and get your license.

As a company and fleet owner, you’re responsible for checking that all drivers driving trucks, buses, or other commercial vehicles have the appropriate license.

Note that drivers of especially challenging vehicles, like a semi-truck with two or more trailers, a tank truck, or a truck transporting hazardous materials, may need special endorsements beyond a standard CDL.

Hours Of Service

Any US company with commercial vehicles must comply with Hours Of Service (HOS) regulations.

To break HOS down simply:

  1. Commercial drivers should not drive for more than 8 hours consecutively — there’s a mandatory 30-minute break after 8 hours driven.
  2. Drivers should have no more than 11 hours total of driving during a 14-hour shift after 10 hours minimum off-duty.
  3. Or, drivers should have no more than 10 hours of total driving after 8 hours minimum off-duty.

The driver and company must also document their compliance with the HOS regulations so that federal inspectors can ensure they follow them.

There are other rules and exceptions in the official HOS, so make sure you familiarize yourself with them through FMCSA’s official website.

Electronic Logging Device (ELD)

In addition to self-reporting the Hours Of Service, many (but not all) commercial vehicles are also required to install an ELD — a device that connects to a vehicle’s diagnostic port and tracks driving hours along with other data points to corroborate the self-reporting.

Electronic logging device from CalAmp

One major exception is short-haul trucks (trucks that operate in a radius smaller than 150 miles). But most long-haul trucks and buses need to install this device. Read our dedicated ELD guide for more information.

Non-compliance can lead to hefty fines ranging from $1,496 to $14,960 per vehicle.

Driver-Vehicle Inspection Report (DVIR)

As a commercial vehicle operator, you must also regularly get your vehicle inspected. Previously, all commercial vehicle drivers needed to keep a Driver-Vehicle Inspection Report (DVIR) with them, even if they had no issues.

But since 2011, only passenger-carrying CMV drivers must carry the latest DVIR report if the driver has not found or been made aware of any deficiencies or defects.

Again, violations can lead to hefty fines and negatively impact your Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) score, and increase the risk of incidents, so it’s crucial to comply. And of course, a strong procedure for keeping well-maintained vehicles is also crucial for maintaining fleet safety and getting the most out of your vehicles and drivers.

Drug and alcohol testing

The US Department of Transport also requires employers of CMV drivers to maintain a regular drug and alcohol testing program to ensure that their drivers are clean.

The official FMCSA minimum requirement for employers of commercial drivers is a drug testing rate of 50% and an alcohol testing rate of 10% per year. (For a fleet of 100 drivers, that’s 50 random drug tests and 10 random alcohol tests per year.)

If your head is starting to spin from all the regulations you need to deal with, don’t worry — the solution isn’t as complicated as you might think.

The easiest way to comply with regulations Like ELD, HOS, and DVIR

Fortunately, you don’t need to implement several different programs and hire more employees to comply with regulations like HOS, ELD, and DVIR.

In fact, a single piece of software and hardware can help you meet many regulatory demands at once. CalAmp makes compliance easy through a robust ELD solution, digitized Driver-Vehicle Inspection Reports, and streamlined HOS logging through the digital tablet (completely automated logging of driving and non-driving hours, for example).

With one piece of technology, you can ensure compliance with the majority of the DOT’s regulations and ensure a good CSA score. That’s only the beginning.

But the true capabilities of fleet telematics don’t end with compliance and meeting regulatory requirements.

The CalAmp Application can help improve driver safety and efficiency by analyzing driving patterns and the incidence of braking and idling along certain roads.

Driving report in the CalAmp app

That enables you to:

  • Coach drivers that experience frequent issues like hard braking or sharp turns.
  • Avoid certain roads that consistently lead to near misses (and incidents) across multiple truck drivers.

Access to real driver data and real-time vehicle locations makes the job of your fleet dispatchers much easier. They can improve routing and ensure that each load gets assigned to the right vehicle at the right time.

You can also keep track of your high-value assets at all times without complications by going beyond just a basic ELD solution. If you’re worried about losing high-value equipment and assets, you can install asset trackers on trailers or even individual cargo.

With the newest technology powered by the Internet of Things, fleet managers get a whole new level of data and control over their fleet, drivers, and assets.


While the average person might think a commercial vehicle is any vehicle used by or for the purpose of a business, that’s not the case for state and federal regulations. Instead, it’s typically defined as a heavy vehicle used to transport goods or people over long distances.

If your fleet includes trucks, buses, or even limousines that fall under those regulations, you must follow the FMCSA or DOT guidelines or you risk incurring hefty fines and even lawsuits.

The best way to not only ensure compliance but the safety and efficiency of your fleet, is with CalAmp’s tailored solutions for transportation and logistics companies.

Sign up for a free demo today, and see exactly how your company, fleet, and drivers can improve by implementing smarter hardware and software into your fleet management processes.

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