Recent studies in the USA have revealed that the catalysts (which are universally fitted to gasoline automobiles) are failing in service to an unacceptable extent. Although the reasons for the failures are not completely clear, it seems that misfiring, leading to highly exothermic reaction in the catalyst, may be responsible for the damage.Legislation is to be enacted later in this decade to address this problem by requiring on board diagnostic (OBD) systems which can measure misfire, as well as catalyst hydrocarbon (HC) conversion efficiency.Although some ideas have been suggested for the OBD requirements, no fully satisfactory sensor technology has yet appeared.This paper describes a novel hydrocarbon sensor based on a surface catalysis principle. The fundamental studies reported here have been made with the automobile application in mind. A catalytic chemi-ionisation model is proposed in order to enhance our understanding of this surface ionisation.The automobile application of this hydrocarbon sensor is examined. Two measurement requirements of OBD II legislation, catalyst HC conversion efficiency, and engine misfire, are shown to be feasible by this instrument. Some fundamental difficulties in using the sensor are discussed.