MELBOURNE, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Rio Tinto is set to use driverless iron ore trains in Western Australia in 2018, the world No.2 miner of the steelmaking commodity said on Monday after completing its first long-haul journey with a completely autonomous locomotive.
The 100-km (60 mile) run marked a key step towards full commissioning next year of the company's AutoHaul programme, originally slated to start in 2015.
"This successful pilot run puts us firmly on track to meet our goal of operating the world's first fully-autonomous, heavy-haul, long-distance rail network," Rio Tinto iron ore chief Chris Salisbury said in a statement.
Rio Tinto has long hailed the potential benefits of a driverless rail network, including speeding up journeys from mine to port and back, cutting out time needed for drivers' shift handovers and eliminating issues with driver fatigue.
It already runs driverless trucks at its mines, a major contributor to the company's sharp cut in unit costs over the past five years.
Delays with the AutoHaul rail plan cut Rio Tinto's iron ore output in 2016 to 330 million tonnes from an original target of 350 million tonnes.
The company runs about 200 locomotives on more than 1,700 km of track, hauling ore from 16 mines to four port terminals.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Joseph Radford)