Detroit: General Motors Co said it would hire 1,000 engineers and researchers in Michigan over the next two years to develop more electric cars and hybrids as it launched its battery-powered Chevrolet Volt.

“Volt clearly demonstrates that we are well on our way and it is especially true when it comes to the electrification of the automobile," GM chief executive Dan Akerson said at a ceremony marking the imminent shipping of the plug-in hybrid.

The Volt, which tops the Toyota Prius for fuel economy, is a first-of-its-kind vehicle that GM has touted as a symbol of its commitment to pushing for gains in fuel efficiency and developing new technology.

Akerson drove on stage in the first commercially made Volt for the event at the assembly plant that builds the car, three years after GM announced the closely watched project.

Akerson said GM wanted to be in the forefront of new vehicle technology—starting with the development of powerful battery packs and electric motors—that promises to reduce oil consumption.

The Volt is designed to run for 35 miles (56 kilometers) on a full charge of its 400-pound (181 kilo) lithium-ion battery pack supplied by a unit of Korea’s LG Chem. After that, a 1.4-liter engine extends the driving range to about 379 miles (610 kilometers).

Some critics questioned whether the Volt would survive GM’s restructuring in bankruptcy in 2009 because of its high cost and the low profit margin on the first shipments of the $41,000 car.

“Given everything that GM has been through in the last several years it would have been easy to let the Volt die, but you didn’t let that happen," Akerson told employees on Tuesday, adding that it would have been easy to scale back plans.

GM North American chief Mark Reuss compared the Volt development to a NASA “moon shot" that included over $700 million in investment in jobs and plants in Michigan.

GM will begin shipping the Volt in limited numbers in December. It plans to expand Volt shipments to more US markets in 2011 and to export the vehicle, Akerson said.

Volt exports to Europe are planned to start in 2012. GM plans to export the Opel Ampera—sister car to the Volt—from the Michigan plant to Europe starting in late 2011.

As the first Volts head to dealer showrooms in December, the automaker is working on the next two generations and ways to reduce their costs.

The Volt, which has won honors as Motor Trend Car of the Year and Green Car of the Year, is the first of several electric or partly electric cars automakers will begin selling over the next two years.

The growing segment includes the all-electric Nissan Motor Co Leaf and upcoming rechargeable cars from Toyota Motor Corp and Ford Motor Co.

GM plans to build 10,000 Volts next year, another 45,000 in 2012 and has already started to discuss internally ways that it could increase the production should there be more demand.

“I think that I have enough time that if there is a big enough pull, I will be able to put not just an increase, but I’ll be able to deliver significant increases," GM product development chief Tom Stephens said of Volt production.

GM introduced a concept version of the Volt at the Detroit auto show in 2007 and started production this month at a plant that straddles Detroit and the city of Hamtramck, Michigan.

The automaker started development work on the vehicle that would become the Volt in 2006 at the urging of then product development chief Bob Lutz.

Lutz was a special guest at the event on Tuesday, the first major event for GM since its record-setting $23 billion initial public offering of shares earlier this month.

GM shares were priced at $33 in the IPO. The stock has flirted with falling below the IPO price and was trading at $33.86 Tuesday on the New York Stock Exchange.