Despite perpetual complaints from the auto industry that materials prices are crippling its competitiveness, steel, often listed as one of the primary culprits, may be on the verge of increasing its application for light vehicles.

Executives for the American Iron and Steel Institute say due to some favorable factors, steel is beginning to once again entice the makers of components, such as wheels and fuel tanks.

Thanks to new finishing techniques that replicate the appearance of aluminum alloy and chromed wheels, styled steel wheels are emerging as an attractive alternative, at a whopping cost savings to the OEM of about $200 per set.

Auto makers now are “evaluating” their wheel-sourcing options, says Ronald P. Krupitzer, AISI vice president-automotive applications market development.

He says General Motors Corp., for example, sourced approximately 500,000 steel wheels last year. After a nadir in 2000, steel is gaining North American market share for wheels.

New finishes enabling steel to mimic the appearance of alloy and chrome wheels also are more durable. “If you see a (domestic-nameplate) pickup with a chrome wheel, it's probably steel,” says Charles L. Potter, AISI senior consultant-automotive applications market development.

Additionally, steel is seeing returning interest for fuel tanks, a component for which blow-molded plastic has achieved a dominant share.

Krupitzer says renewed interest in steel is being driven by the rising cost of crude oil that is causing commensurate increases in the cost of plastics.

“Now may be the time to reconsider steel” for fuel tanks, Krupitzer says. “Car companies are asking for quotes on steel tanks” as well as plastic.

A steel fuel tank now can save as much as $20 compared with the same fuel tank in plastic, he says. Moreover, with the increasing interest in alternative fuels, such as ethanol-intensive E85 and other biofuels, steel has a demonstrated history of corrosion resistance and durability.

The AISI has a Strategic Alliance for Steel Fuel Tanks consortium to assist auto makers with technical advice in designing and adopting steel fuel tanks.

It also continues with numerous development alliances and advanced initiatives to promote the use of steel in automotive applications, including the Tailored Steel Product Alliance, started earlier this year, to improve the collaboration between auto makers and suppliers of so-called tailored blanks.

The TSPA hopes to develop and optimize the applications of tailored-steel components, which often can save weight and improve structural performance.

Krupitzer says the steel industry continually is developing new products and applications for the metal, which, pound-for-pound remains the dominant material in all automobiles.

“We think the industry is changing its image,” says Krupitzer, to a more high-tech perception.

There are a variety of high-strength, weight-optimizing formulations now in production, and many new vehicles are demonstrating the efficacy of advanced steels, including components for niche models conventional wisdom might have suggested held little potential for steel.

Says Krupitzer: “Fifty percent of the steels currently used weren't even on the drawing board 10 years ago.”