This January, there are two shows of interest to car buyers in the United States. In Detroit, at the 2012 North American International Auto Show, combustion is king. But conduction's the thing in Las Vegas, at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Yes, electronics, where there will be a lot of talk about "ultrabooks" (a new, lightweight kind of laptop and yes, the MacBook Air beat everyone else to it) along with various other devices that don't have an immediate connection to driving. However, car companies have been participating in the CES more and more in recent years. That's because their products - especially their concepts - quite often tend to resemble giant smartphones with wheels and a motor.

Cue, er, CUE: the Cadillac User Experience, demonstrated at this year's CES. Set to appear first in the 2013 Cadillac XTS, the system will become available throughout the marque's range over time. The buzzword with this and other systems that pertain to a car's myriad functions is "haptic" - meaning tactile feedback. Instead of just pressing an icon on a touchscreen, there's a subtle resistance or reaction, which lets the user know by feel that something has been activated.

The CUE system includes this haptic element. It also allows the driver to select whatever information he or she would like displayed. The days of the old-fashioned speedometer are numbered; needles and dials will be virtual versions. Not only that, infrared sensors can pick up when a hand is moving toward the controls. The system then lights up extra icons.

The other big buzzword in the computer world is "cloud" or, more accurately "the cloud." Put simply, this means sets of remote servers, accessed via the internet. General Motors' OnStar telematics system - that provides turn-by-turn navigation and can contact emergency services in the event of an accident (among other things) - is using CES to showcase cloud-based streaming of information and entertainment.

The undeniably handsome Ford Evos plug-in hybrid concept, which also uses cloud technology, will make its North American debut at CES 2012, not even bothering to stop by at Detroit. Meanwhile, the official car of this year's event is the Ford Fusion.

And if any more evidence was required to underline the importance of CES to carmakers, the head honcho of Mercedes-Benz - Dr. Dieter Zetsche - will be delivering this year's keynote address. His buzz term will probably be "the connected car." The Mercedes-Benz equivalent of OnStar is called mbrace (the m is deliberately lower-case). Herr Doktor will no doubt mention its second wave, named - imaginatively enough - mbrace2, which will feature cloud-based apps, traffic and navigation assistance, speech recognition, concierge services and more.

Gracing the M-B stand is the F125 research vehicle. The company says it presents "a visionary outlook on future technical developments in the luxury segment." It could even cover 621 emissions-free miles, in theory. There will also be DICE, the Dynamic & Intuitive Control Experience simulator, where the wave of a hand can "control the vehicle of the future."

Audi, Chrysler and Kia are also exhibiting at CES, and AutoTrader.com will be filing reports, so look out for more news. The 2012 Consumer Electronics Show takes place at the Las Vegas Convention Center from January 10 to January 13.

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Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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