Later this month, General Motors will begin real-world testing a fleet of Chevrolet Malibus outfitted with lithium ion battery technology—as part of a push to bring the Chevrolet Volt concept vehicle to market. GM is targeting November 2010 to begin selling the Volt, a plug-in hybrid designed to travel up to 40 miles strictly on electricity. The performance of the batteries and energy storage technology is the largest hurdle for GM to get the Volt into production.

By most industry standards, the release of the Volt in 2010 is an aggressive target date—especially for a new vehicle with unproven technology. Some industry analysts and environmentalists, and electric vehicle enthusiasts speculate that the company will produce few units, perhaps only for fleet use, in the first year. Others characterize the Volt as “vaporware” and merely a play for eco-friendly publicity.

Lithium ion batteries are significantly lighter and more powerful than the nickel metal hydride batteries used in today’s hybrids. GM has been conducting lab tests on two separate packs—one from U.S.-based A123 Systems and the other from Korea’s LG Chem—to determine which technology is best suited to the Volt.

According to the latest announcements from GM, the new batteries will allow the Volt to travel zero to-sixty in less than nine seconds, deliver fuel economy of approximately 150 mpg, and will last for 10 years or 150,000 miles.

Batteries are not the only hurdle for the Chevy Volt. GM will also be racing the clock to redesign the shape of the vehicle to improve its aerodynamics, and to figure out how to manage the gas sitting in the Volt’s tank for long periods of time. For drivers who seldom drive more than 40 miles in a day, the same tank of gasoline could go unused for weeks or months.